Ninety minutes in, Jeb Bush found his voice, speaking out for civility. Shortly after, John Kasich admitted he went to a gay friend’s wedding. About an hour before, Ben Carson thanked the moderator for remembering to call on him. And then he saved himself with a bit of surgical humor at the end.
And Donald Trump won the room, at least, by attacking the president, his colleagues on the stage and deriding criticism as political correctness. It is less clear if he won the viewers who were tuning in for the first time to see who else was on the stage.
There were moments of great clarity at the season’s first big debate – on immigration, on education and on Social Security. Whether or not you agree with him, you know where Mike Huckabee stands on transgender Americans, what Rand Paul thinks about Trump, and what Chris Christie thinks about Paul.
I was skeptical about the potential for getting anything out of a debate with 13 people on stage, ten of them candidates. But I did not account for the sharp, well-prepared questioning from the moderators’ table or the sharp, well-directed elbows behind the matching podiums. The candidates themselves seemed mildly shocked.
Still, Marco Rubio managed to link a last-minute audience question about veterans to one about what God was telling him. Scott Walker was chill throughout, which is probably all he needs to be for now. Ted Cruz — normally an aggressive pit bull — got to denounce the Washington cartel, and that was about it. Still, he sparked immediate Internet search interest, which is probably all he needs for now.
It’s safe to say none of the candidates invited to the prime-time rumble punched through the conventional wisdom more effectively than Carly Fiorina did in the earlier also-ran debate, when she put a shiv in Trump for associating with the Clintons, Hillary and Bill.
This was unlike any debate I’ve ever covered or moderated. There were fireworks and substance, biography (Kasich’s mailman dad; Cruz’s preacher dad; Bush’s president dad) and iconography (Reagan, mostly).
This is all to the good. Let’s listen to them all — all 17 Republicans and all five Democrats. Let’s measure them against what we care about and what they care about. Let’s brace ourselves for the television ads that will shortly blanket the airwaves and try to tell us what to think.
And let’s do it all without the incisive Jon Stewart, who danced off the air the same night to Springsteen.
There are eight more GOP debates in the offing, and six Democratic debates planned. The one thing we know for sure this time? No one will be able to tell us we don’t know who these candidates are or what they believe. Only those not paying attention will be able to say the press won’t ask about gay rights or Iran or Common Core.
This is good news. Welcome to the debate season. We’ve stocked up on the popcorn at our house.