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Who Won Last Night’s Republican Debate?

With the Iowa caucuses less than five months away and Donald Trump leading a large pack of Republican presidential hopefuls, the candidates met in Simi Valley, Calif., Wednesday night for their second nationally televised debate.  To help us understand who won, who lost and how it might affect the race going forward, the News and Media Relations office asked Dr. Sean O’Rourke, a professor of rhetoric in the Communication Studies Department at Furman, if he could break down the debate.

Dr. Sean O'Rourke
Dr. Sean O’Rourke

Dr. O’Rourke, who joined the Furman faculty in 2000, teaches courses in argumentation, debate, and American public address. This semester he is serving as the Brown Foundation Fellow and Distinguished Visiting Professor of Rhetoric at Sewanee: The University of the South.

Q: Did this debate live up to its hype?

O’Rourke: As was the case with the first GOP primary debate, the network carrying the debate (this time CNN) over-pitched the debate as “momentous” and “historic.” More importantly, the debate was hyped as a sporting event designed to entertain, with USA Today offering “power rankings” and CNN using an opening bell audio track to create a prize-fight boxing atmosphere.

The debate, unfortunately, lived up to that hype. All too often it seemed more a sparring session than a debate. Some candidates – most notably Chris Christie, John Kasich, Marco Rubio, and Rand Paul – at times sought to appear reasonable, considered, and judicious. But in the end even these four were lured into the fight. Late in the debate, Marco Rubio said that certain problems “cannot be solved by intellect,” a position that may resonate with the action-oriented, anti-intellectual trend in grassroots American politics but may come back to haunt the GOP in the general election.

One bizarre twist is that the dominant demon in the early portions of the debate was the federal government—nearly every candidate condemned “the mess in Washington,” pledged to “fix what is broken in Washington,” and even suggested throwing everyone in Washington out to start over again. This is an odd and potentially dangerous tactic when the GOP controls the House and the Senate and holds a slim majority on the Supreme Court.

Q: Which candidates gained ground, who lost ground and why?

O’Rourke: We have to realize – despite Jake Tapper’s introduction – that this was not a debate in any formal sense of the word. 11 participants speaking in roundtable fashion can at best only present positions or points of view and, in so doing, provide mere glimpses into their fitness for the presidency. And remember, four candidates were relegated to the 6 p.m. “JV” debate. So there is little direct clash, extended argument, case building, and detailed refutation of the positions advanced. Speculating about gaining and losing ground is about all we can do.

Jeb Bush needed to gain ground and this debate did not help him. Not because he was wrong (he came off as reasoned, considered, and factually accurate at least as often as everyone else) but rather because he at times appeared hesitant, unsure of his answers and a bit overwhelmed by Donald Trump. And his repeated turns back to his Florida governorship didn’t seem to get much traction, in part because in political terms it is now so long ago.

Scott Walker and Rand Paul desperately needed to help themselves and they did not. Neither candidate could settle for “did not flub” and that is about all either can say.

Ben Carson’s image remains untarnished and his demeanor in the debate will ensure that he remains, at least in the short term, the smart nice-guy alternative to the brash and heartless bunch. At some point, however, he will need to assert a firmer grasp on international affairs.

Carly Fiorina, despite looking flustered before fumbling Trump’s question about her Hewlett-Packard failures, seems to have emerged as a clear favorite, at least among the media pundits. Fiorina sought to project strength and a clear grasp of both the issues and her position on them, and most believe she did just that. She will probably see a bump in the polls.

Q: Is this debate likely to shape the Republican race differently from here on out?

O’Rourke: Not in any substantive way. It will, I suspect, begin to narrow the field. No one in the “JV” debate is likely to rise and at least two of the candidates in the main event did little to stop their downward spirals. Once the field narrows, positions and differences will begin to crystalize and future debates may benefit from this opportunity for stronger clash on substantive issues.

Q: How did Donald Trump fare in the debate?  Was it the kind of performance that will likely keep him ahead in the polls?

O’Rourke: Trump was Trump and he scored points with punches that hit Fiorina, Paul, and Rubio, and Cruz. But that kind of playground brawling may begin to wear thin with Republicans not enamored of his anecdotal reasoning, brash personal attacks, and sweeping generalizations. His core constituency, however, will have been happy with his performance. I think the race will tighten.

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