GOP Presidential Candidates Debate in Cleveland

Last night all 17 of the Republican presidential candidates took the stage in Cleveland in the second of a dozen debates leading up to the nomination. The debate, hosted by Fox News, drew the largest television audience in primary debate history. More than 24 million Americans, fueled largely by the presence of real estate mogul and consummate entertainer Donald Trump, tuned in to what promised to be nothing short of a spectacle.

Citing a lack of space Fox chose to split the candidates into two groups based on recent poll numbers; seven participated in the pre-card bout and ten in the main event. But as many of the polling numbers were well within the margin of error, Fox effectually independently decided which of the candidates on the bubble would share the main stage and which would be relegated to the earlier debate.

In the opening debate Carly Fiorina, the former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, came out as the clear winner. Time will tell, but several GOP strategists have already expressed hope that she will rise through the ranks, as the party could desperately use such an eloquent and level-headed voice in the turbulent months to come.    

As for the spectacle that millions tuned in to see? It showed up in spades. Trump, placed center stage, drew at different times both laughs and boos. He notably refused to rule out a possible third-party run, which drew the ire or other candidates, moderators, and audience members alike.  

The story of the night was the well-placed barbs offered up by each of the three moderators, who pulled no punches in confronting candidates with difficult questions. In the end Florida Senator Marco Rubio seemed to emerge as the winner, offering several calm and cogent answers. For all his polling strength, Trump came across as blustering and brash. But in a time when many Americans have grown tired of politics as usual, it remains to be seen if Trump’s bravado will hurt his poll numbers or help.

As might be expected the debate featured a great many platitudes and statements best described as high rhetoric. Largely absent were actual clarifications of candidate plans regarding the economy, social programs, immigration reform, and foreign policy. In the hours following the debate some analysts wrote it off as mere reality television, and a mockery of American democracy. Yet the social media buzz surrounding the event was enormous, and will no doubt continue to grow as the election nears. 

The next debate will air on September 16, hosted by CNN.