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The Party Line is dedicated to examining regional issues and policies through the figures who give shape to them. These are critical, complex, and even downright confusing times we live in. There’s a lot to navigate nationally and in the Carolinas; whether it’s elections, debates on gay marriage, public school closings, or tax incentives for economic development. The Party Line’s goal is to offer a provocative, intelligent look at the issues and players behind the action; a view that ultimately offers the necessary insight for Carolina voters to hold public servants more accountable.

GOP Debate Unlikely To Change Candidates' Standings

Michael Bitzer
Michael Bitzer

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. Senator 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 with “because I give them money,” probably didn’t endear him to those who weren’t already supporting him.

But to start the debate with not pledging 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 Governor 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 governor 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 ten. 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 Trumps 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 September 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 an associate professor of politics and history at Catawba College, where he also serves as the 2011-2012 Swink Professor for Excellence in Classroom Teaching and the chair of the department of history & politics. A native South Carolinian, he holds graduate degrees in both history and political science from Clemson University and The University of Georgiaââ