The debate in Cleveland won't change the course of the Republican presidential race. But it's likely to affect individual candidates and how they're viewed. Some gained, some faltered, some were unaffected.
As a group, the ten candidates made a strong impression. This is important. The contrast with the motley crew of Republican candidates four years ago was striking. Five or six of them could beat Hillary Clinton or any other Democrat in the general election.
Here's how each candidate fared:
Donald Trump. He turns out to be a different guy when he's in the same room in his rivals-not as free-wheeling, not as funny, and no longer willing to trash them by name. He was out of his element, and it showed.
He had trouble with questions about his claims, flip-flops, and business deals. What was his evidence that Mexico is "sending" illegal immigrants across the border? He said he'd talked to border guards. That wasn't evidence. He's "evolved on many issues," he said. Forced to defend having declared four bankruptcies, he trotted out a euphemism, saying he used "chapter laws." Besides, other people in his line of work do the same. And his investors were "killers," not innocents who'd been taken advantage of. Trump gained no ground in the debate and probably lost some, especially with his refusal to rule out running as an independent. Republican voters, even the populists who support him, won't like that.
Jeb Bush. He gave impressive answers on immigration, education, taxes, and economic growth. But after all these weeks, he still has trouble talking about Iraq. All in all, he came across as serious and prepared to be president. Bush described his approach to governing as "applying conservative principles the right way." If he didn't gain ground, neither did he lose any.
Chris Christie. A great night for him. He won the biggest blowup of the debate, mopping the floor with Rand Paul on the subject of national security. Christie knows how to project his personality, explain things, and make an argument - and he did all three effectively. Christie was the best debater of the bunch. He gained, big time.
Marco Rubio. That he's the best pure candidate in the field was clear. He exudes strength and clarity. One could see why Democrats fear him up against Hillary Clinton. As he suggested, he's the future. She's the past. He's young and assertive. She's old and evasive. Rubio was a winner.
Ben Carson. He is an enormously appealing figure given his long career as a brain surgeon. He wisely didn't try to impress anyone with esoteric policy details. Instead he mentioned his successful separation of two girls at the brain. His need is to be taken seriously as presidential material. On that, he made headway.
Ted Cruz. He got short shrift from the Fox questioners. They seemed to forget about him at times. Yet the folks in Frank Luntz's focus group, airing their views on Fox after the debate, gave him high marks. That was surprising. Nothing he said was remarkable. But he made the case for a "consistent conservative" as the GOP nominee, and indeed he fits that bill. I doubt if his presidential prospects improved.
Mike Huckabee. He was the star of the Luntz focus group show. When he spoke, the feedback soared. He didn't sugarcoat his social conservatism. He scored with his critique of the sad shape the military is in. He cited B-52 bombers. "Most of them are older than me," he said. He's 59. Huckabee, it's now clear, is not a peripheral candidate.
Rand Paul. His campaign has been reeling and it won't get any better on the basis of his debate performance. There were only a few glimpses of his libertarianism. More would have helped. He bragged about his 5-year budget without explaining how it gets to balanced. He was the night's loser.
Scott Walker. His answers were short. He didn't use all the time allotted to him. This was a mistake. It left the impression he didn't have much to say. He appeared weak. He offered a quick answer, then nothing. There's an old adage in politics that you don't get in trouble for what you don't say. It's safe to say, he didn't get in trouble.
John Kasich. He has two significant things going for him. He emulates Jack Kemp, the bleeding heart conservative. And he's from Ohio. "Economic growth is the key to everything," he said. Kemp couldn't have said it better. And he insisted conservatives must look out for the poor and downtrodden, a point that may not help in the GOP primaries but will in the general election. Kasich's Ohio is a state the Republican nominee must win to capture the presidency. His chances of being on the ticket improved last night.
The second debate of seven Republicans with polls numbers below the top ten was unexciting. I'd rank their performances in this order: Carly Fiorina, Bobby Jindal, Rick Perry, Rick Santorum, Jim Gilmore, Lindsey Graham, and George Pataki.