The big winner emerging from Thursday night’s first Republican presidential debate? Fox News.
Sure, John Kasich, Marco Rubio and Chris Christie handled questions especially well, but the three people who were asking those questions — Megan Kelly, Chris Wallace and Bret Baier — are the ones who made it the most lively debate exchange in years. With 10 candidates on stage, that was not an easy task. The Fox trio accomplished it by largely steering away from predictable “issues” questions that are guaranteed to elicit a prepackaged response. Instead, at least through the first half of the program, they delivered a series of enquiries specifically targeting the individual vulnerabilities of each candidate.
Republicans, who justifiably think of Fox News as the mouthpiece of their party, were probably surprised, perhaps even offended, but the sharp interrogation made for good television. And, in forcing the candidates to do a bit of thinking on their feet, they made at least some of the contenders look better than if they had been able to fall back on their all-too-familiar, rehearsed litanies of conservative talking points.
The earlier consolation debate between the seven candidates who failed to make the cut for the prime-time show demonstrated how deadly dull these events can be when the anchors throw softballs tailored to serve conservative orthodoxy. That earlier debate produced no surprises, unless it was the revelation that South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham can respond to any question — what did you have for breakfast? — with a call for all-out war in the Middle East. Only former Hewlett-Packard executive Carly Fiorina showed enough novel appeal to suggest she might receive a little bump in the polls from her performance.
By contrast, the main event started with Baier asking for a show of hands to indicate if any of the top 10 would refuse to endorse the party’s eventual nominee and, instead, launch an independent campaign. The question was aimed at Donald Trump and he did not shy from sticking his hand in the air, indicating his provisional loyalty to the Republican cause.
Through the course of the debate, Trump was on the receiving end of zingers. While there had been an expectation that the surprise front-runner would be targeted by his rivals — and he did, indeed, get called out by Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul for his ties to the Clintons — Trump found Kelly and Wallace to be his most persistent antagonists. Kelly challenged the ways he has variously characterized women as fat pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animals. Wallace was aggressive in pushing Trump to explain why he had used bankruptcy protection four times, costing hundreds of jobs and leaving his creditors shortchanged.
In response, Trump was Trump — unapologetic and quick to fight back. Especially in the way he described how his many contributions to political candidates were investments that paid off down the line, he demonstrated all the subtlety and integrity of a New Jersey mobster. Hillary Clinton dutifully showed up at his wedding, he said, because he had bought her compliance with campaign cash. Trump likely solidified his standing among angry voters fed up with standard-issue politicians and the mainstream GOP, but any Republican looking for something more than bravado and tough talk would have been looking for a candidate somewhere else on the stage.
And would have found a few appealing choices.
In a hall filled with a Cleveland crowd, Ohio Gov. Kasich used the home field advantage well. When Kelly grilled him about his willingness to accept Medicaid money for his own state while other GOP governors, such as Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, shunned the federal dollars, Kasich deftly described how he had used the funding to treat inmates in Ohio’s prisons and reduce the recidivism rate to 10%.
Florida Sen. Rubio delivered well-crafted, solidly conservative answers to every question he was asked, cementing his position as an attractive establishment alternative to the stolid Jeb Bush. New Jersey Gov. Christie may have gained back a little of his faded appeal by showing Trump how to be a tough guy who also has real policy positions, not just bar-stool opinions.