Republican Debate February 7, 2016

Images courtesy of ABC News

ABC Republican Debate:

A Good Night for Governors;
Bad Night for Rubio

| published February 7, 2016 |

By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor

With less than 48 hours to go before voters in New Hampshire go to their polling places to participate in the nation’s first primary, Republican candidates met for a widely-anticipated debate at Saint Anselm College in Manchester. Seven candidates stood on the stage in front of an audience of more than 1000 in a forum hosted by ABC News and moderated by ABC World News anchor David Muir and foreign correspondent Martha Radditz. Also on stage were journalists Josh McElveen and Mary Katharine Ham.

The debate started with a few technical glitches, not the least of which was loud applause so loud that it made the candidates unable to hear their own names when they were called to come on stage. This led to confusion and extreme awkwardness in those first few moments, as Dr. Ben Carson, then others, seemed baffled as to who should walk out onto the stage next. Carson, and a few seconds later businessman Trump, stood frozen in the wings while others whisked past, and as Ohio Governor John Kasich remained lurking in the background.

A side-stage camera caught the unfortunate and cringe-worthy moments as confusion and awkwardness unfolding between the backstage entryway and the edge of the stage. Muir had to finally introduce Carson a second time, and then request for a third time that businessman Donald Trump come out on stage. Muir and Radditz quickly explained that the confusion was the result of audio limitations in the auditorium, where during heavy applause it was sometimes difficult for the candidates to hear what was being said over the speaker system (the same problem arose several times during the debate when candidates were apparently unable to hear questions or inquiries).

A few analysts suggested that Trump had decided to wait with Carson in the wings during the botched introductions as a gentlemanly gesture while others walked out on stage on cue (or off cue, depending on your perspective).

But the mildly comic mishaps during the introduction phase did not overshadow what came next—a sometimes explosive debate in which it was clear all candidates on stage intended to some degree to break out of the still crowded pack, and a debate in which the week’s notably rising star—Florida Senator Marco Rubio—absorbed both heavy incoming fire and a self-inflicted bad debate performance.

Muir first raised the question of fitness for the role of commander-in-chief, asking Trump, then moments later Texas Senator Ted Cruz, to address recent sparring between the two front-runners over who is best fit to serve as the President in a time of international crisis. Earlier in the week, Cruz has told audiences in New Hampshire that Trump was too ill-suited for that critical role, suggesting that Americans “might wake up one morning to find that [Trump] had nuked Denmark.”

Donald Trump responded by stating that he was imminently well-qualified in both experience and temperament to be commander-in-chief, and that as a business leader he was also adept at making complex decisions under extreme pressure. When Muir pivoted the same matter back to Cruz, the Texas Senator dodged giving a direct answer, but stressed that he was simply raising an issue which only the voters of New Hampshire and other states would have to consider when they cast their votes for President. Cruz avoided giving a specific answer to whether he believed Trump was “unfit,” even when Muir pressed him a second time.

But Muir seeded the debate theatrics early with an opportunity for Cruz and Dr. Ben Carson to bury the hatchet on the problem of allegations that staffer for Cruz sent messages to caucus-goers in Iowa suggesting that Carson was on the verge of dropping out of the race.

That controversy has been simmering on the front-burner for days. At issue are emails, tweets, and phone messages sent out in the hours before Iowans went to their caucuses to cast their votes last Monday. Cruz staffers, allegedly responding to some news reports that Carson was leaving Iowa and flying to Florida—instead of New Hampshire, which by journalistic logic would be the destination-of-choice for any candidate seriously in the running—began a rapid series of direct communications with volunteers, caucus-goers and even precinct captains across the state suggesting that Carson’s withdrawal from the Presidential race was imminent, if not already decided. In tweets, phone messages and emails—even, some have said, on Facebook—Cruz backers began putting the word out that Carson supporters should now strongly consider switching their votes to Cruz instead. Those messages may have reached hundreds, if not thousands of people over the course of several hours.

Rumors of Carson’s withdrawal had actually begun in the early hours of Monday, when chatter on the internet, on political blogs, and among political groupies first hit the radar screens (for the record, I had at least two text messages from friends in Alabama and Georgia, as well as an email from a friend in Tennessee, asking me if I knew anything about the Carson people shutting down operations; after an hour of searching news threads online, I could find nothing to confirm it, save for a few highly partisan comments by people who took note of several staff cut backs by Carson as evidence that his campaign was on the edge of collapse).

Cruz, on stage again offered what seemed to be a genuine and heartfelt apology for the entire mess, and he went on to explain his understanding of what happened in Iowa, which included the suggestion that the rumors of Carson’s withdrawal came first from CNN, not from anyone on his staff in Iowa or elsewhere. Cruz seemed to indicate that he had nothing to apologize for in relation to the original reports from CNN, but his deep regret was that the situation was not corrected by his staff in the hours after rumors of Carson’s withdrawal were shown to be false, and at which time it would have been too late.

“They [CNN] didn’t correct the story until 9:15 that night,” Cruz said. “Subsequent to that initial report, Ben’s campaign put out a statement saying that he was not suspending his campaign. I wish that our campaign staff had forwarded that statement…but they were unaware of it.”

“When this first transpired I apologized to Ben, and I apologize again now,” Cruz said.

Cruz said it would never be his intention to steal votes through deliberate use of misinformation. Carson, who showed little emotion or agreement (in fact his face remained stone-like and stoic), accepted the apology (for the second time in as many days), but sternly urged voters to consider the deeper implications of the action, and its relevance to “typical Washington behavior.”

Most observers regarded Cruz explanation as reasonable, even if he did not accept full responsibility for a series of actions which may have cost hundreds of votes for Carson in caucusing on Monday. For its part, CNN has declared that Cruz’s timeline of events is patently false, and says it never made any mention of any talk of Carson dropping from the race. CNN even released a statement suggesting that Cruz is attempting to short the blame form his own staff to the network.

“What Senator Cruz said [during the debate] is categorically false,” the CNN statement reads, “CNN never corrected its reporting because CNN never had anything to correct. The Cruz campaign’s actions the night of the Iowa caucuses had nothing to do with CNN’s reporting. The fact that Senator Cruz continues to knowingly mislead the voters about this is astonishing.”

In the meantime, there are still complaints by volunteers and staff of Carson, and by some of those who caucused in Iowa, several of whom had said they were the recipients of the false information about Carson’s departure from the race. The controversy may have had the unintended effect of giving the Carson candidacy a well-needed boost, especially among those Republicans perhaps inclined toward Cruz but still uncommitted. It is still entirely unclear exactly where the first rumors of the Carson campaign’s demise originated, though some GOP insiders suggest that the question to ask is “who really benefitted from voters in Iowa making those last-minute defections?"

That issued settled, the debate moved on to fresher topics, and the spotlight quickly turned from the Cruz-Rubio incident, to the issue of Rubio’s rapidly ascending star. After Rubio’s surprisingly strong third place finish in Iowa last week—in which he performed much better than polls had indicated, and where he came to within one point of taking second place from Trump—Rubio has been the media star, and the candidate with the biggest target on his back.
Marco Rubio and Chris Christie at Republican Debate February 7, 2016
The question came down to real experience, said David Muir. Were the others wrong to point out the Rubio has only served one term in the Senate, and that his legislative record is thin? This sparked what was no doubt the biggest game-changer of the night, as Rubio and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie sparred intensively over who was more qualified run for President—governors, with their daily demands for immediate action to constituent problems, or Senators. Rubio clearly struggled with the answer. More notably, Rubio seemed to recycle—at least twice and almost verbatim—the same generalized talking points about Barack Obama. The exchange seemed to prove two things: the several of other candidates believe that Rubio has thin experience from his one term in the Senate; Chris Christie was willing to hit Rubio hard on what the New Jersey Governor believes is Rubio’s Achilles heel.

Though it was former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and Ohio Governor John Kasich who were expected, based on media reports, to launch the heaviest hits on Rubio, Christie stole the show for several minutes as he mocked Rubio’s stump speech answers and recycled remarks. It was arguably Rubio’s worst debate moment of the entire campaign season, and it may have pushed the Florida Senator out of the fast lane it appeared only days ago he had secured for himself in his effort to rally the establishment and traditional GOP support for himself.

Bush, too, had a good night, though his opportunities to speak were limited. Bush especially shined when the talk turned toward public works and eminent domain. When Donald Trump was asked to clarify or defend his recent statements on the issue (“ I love eminent domain,” he recently said.), it prompted Trump to explain the value of the time-honored process: making way for bridges, highways, schools, public works facilities…not the least of which is the Keystone Pipeline. Jeb Bush struck back hard, complaining that Trump’s version of eminent domain included the forced displacement of an elderly woman from her home on the strip in Atlantic City to make way for a Trump casino-hotel property, and heavy-handed legal demands for homeowners to move aside to make way for Trump’s corporate entities and projects in other cities and states.

Bush was at the top of his game—a rare moment where the former Florida Governor bested Trump on an issue the businessman may occasionally find difficult to defend. When Bush attempted to press Trump on specific points, Trump got angry, shushing Bush, then lambasting the audience when they responded with angry boos and hisses. Trump discounted the audience reaction as the work of party regulars planted in the room to cheer for Bush and Kasich. It was a rare, perhaps unprecedented moment of a front-runner actually attacking the audience, and it may have helped give the Bush campaign a slight positive nudge.

Kasich, too, had a good night—certainly better-than-expected. Kasich, who was for a few days attempting to balance the win-lose complexity of his simultaneous endorsements (The New York Times; The Washington Post), handled the question of his “moderation” and establishment appeal deftly and skillfully, invoking the successes of past Republican politicians, including Ronald Reagan. On several occasions, Kasich received some of the strongest applause of the night.

The issue of addiction and alcohol abuse came up as well. Cruz addressed with the very personal story of his own half-sister who died from a drug overdose. Cruz said that ultimately drug abuse is a border issue, since so many billions in drugs cross into the United States from Mexico. Christie said he would favor cross border incursions and interdiction even if that intervention comes without the cooperation of Mexico. New Hampshire has the highest rate of heroine abuse and heroin overdoses; McElveen pointed out that regional and local law enforcement has traced the vast majority of the heroine in New Hampshire back to drug operations in Mexico.

Most analysts agreed afterwards that Rubio lost ground as a direct result of what was arguably his weakest debate performance. Though Christie, Bush and Kasich all had a good night, it is not clear that any of the three will be able to make a successful breakout while the race remains crowded, and while Trump remains numerically the front-runner. Rubio, it seemed only last week, was within a hair’s breadth of channeling the so-called “establishment” and “mainstream” support into his column, an achievement which would have placed him on the third track in a three-way race, with Trump and Cruz battling for the anti-Washington mindset.

Now, Rubio must reboot and regroup his effort. He must also begin the fight anew in his efforts to outshine the Governors, Bush, Kasich and Christie, any one of whom could become the next breakout star.

Related Thursday Review articles:

No Do-Over in Iowa, Despite Squabble Between Cruz and Carson; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; February 4, 2016.

Carly Fiorina Bumped From Saturday ABC Debate; Thursday Review staff; Thursday Review; February 6, 2016.