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Michael Bitzer: GOP debates unlikely to change candidates’ standing

The official kick-off event of the Republican presidential primary debate season came and went, and with few surprises, it seems like the field will stay locked in its current state.

The candidate who seemed to have the best evening was Florida’s U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio. He showed a level of poise and preparedness that was consistent throughout the evening. Rubio is already polling among the top tier. It felt like he may rise as the “anti-Donald” candidate, if he can capitalize on his debate performance.

The other top tier/non-Donald candidates were Jeb Bush and Scott Walker. Bush still felt rough around the edges. He still doesn’t have the answer to “why a third member of your family in the White House?” other than to repeatedly stress “I’m my own man.” It may be time to ask, “Can Jeb escape his father’s and, more importantly, his brother’s shadow at all?”

For all the talk about the energy and fire that the Wisconsin governor has, it seemed like Walker’s performance was flat, at best. This is surprising, considering the governor had the most debate experience of all the candidates on the stage with his two runs for governor and the recall effort.

The other top tier/Donald candidate was indeed all Trump, all the time. Most observers were curious as to which of the other nine candidates would attack the poll leader first. It wasn’t a candidate who went after Trump, but the moderators in a very aggressive manner.

Whether the conservative media bastion of Fox News has decided to take out Trump themselves or whether the moderators felt they needed to show “we can attack one of our own just as much as we go against the opposing party,” Trump seemed unable, or unwilling, to move beyond the “thousands and thousands” of vague arguments with little to no policy substance offered.

Granted, Trump answering the question about his multiple bankruptcy filings with “everyone does it” and the question about why politicians respond to him — “because I give them money” — probably didn’t endear him to those who weren’t already supporting him.

But to start the debate with a refusal to pledge not to run a third-party independent campaign against the eventual nominee (if it wasn’t him) will certainly show the lack of real party commitment that hard-core partisans within the GOP will want from any nominee.

Among the next tier outliers on the stage, the biggest fireworks were between Chris Christie and Rand Paul. While Christie may have bought himself more time in the race, Paul’s aggressiveness seemed to show a candidate on the edge of demise.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich, the debate’s hometown candidate, put in a good performance but seemed to be angling for the party lane already occupied by Bush, Christie and, to some extent, Walker. Some observers have described him as a Bush without the baggage.

Walker’s willingness to be seen as a moderate by the most passionate primary voters, who tend to be more conservative, may weigh him down, as has appeared to be the case with Bush and Christie.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and fellow social-evangelical conservative Ben Carson captured some limelight. But Huckabee’s demeanor showed a real collapse of the “happy warrior” from his last presidential run to one of real anger. Carson, at times, seemed lost and an afterthought to the moderators. He did not present an even performance until his final question, which may have come two hours too late.

Finally, Ted Cruz seemed almost forgotten in the field of 10. While not discounted as a debater, Cruz’s most memorable line was when he went after (again) his own leader in the U.S. Senate, Mitch McConnell.

Granted, according to one recent analysis, debates don’t seem to move the polling needle much. (One notable exception: Gingrich getting a second bump up after the 2012 South Carolina CNN debate.) Rubio may be able to capitalize on his performance some, and there’s a possibility Trump’s numbers may begin to deflate, but the likelihood is the field pretty much stands pat, with no major gaffes or fouls by any of the candidates.

On to the next debate, set for Sept. 16, and the next round of who is in the prime time debate. One of the key questions for the next month: Can Carly Fiorina, who seemed to capture the happy hour debate, capitalize on her performance and propel herself into a prime time slot?

Dr. Michael Bitzer is provost and professor of politics at Catawba College. This column is from the blog he writes for WFAE radio, The Party Line. 

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