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First Republican Debate: Would YOU pledge to vote for Jeb?

For weeks we’ve been wondering how the Republican field would handle the presence of Donald Trump on stage with the rest of the “conventional” candidates.

GOP Cleveland debateOn Thursday night in Cleveland, we got the answer. Trump delivered perhaps the most unconventional “performance” in a debate that we’ve ever witnessed – and his presence literally forced all the other candidates to get serious about staking out and defending their positions.

In one way or another, Trump dominated the debate from the opening moments. When he failed to take the pledge to support the eventual Republican nominee, everyone assumed (or should assume) that he was talking about Jeb Bush.

In that sense, Trump – again – tapped into the mood of many conservative voters throughout the country who are fed up with the establishment. How many of you would pledge, today, that you would automatically vote for Jeb Bush if he wins the nomination?

Did Bush satisfactorily answer that he’s different from his dad and his brother?

With that moment behind them, the candidates launched into probably the most substantive discussion of the issues that I’ve ever seen in a debate of this format. True, they could only answer for a minute or so, but the participants actually had to take positions and often times, defend them.

Pundits are highlighting the exchange between Chris Christie and Rand Paul over the NSA’s domestic surveillance program as the testiest moment, but that was just the tip of the iceberg.

It was clear that Paul came to make an impression and stand up for what he believes. Lost in the discussion over Trump is the fact that it was Rand Paul who first questioned Trump’s lack of a pledge. (It has to be noted that his father refused to take that very same pledge – so Rand was making it clear that he’s not just a carbon copy of his dad).

Jeb Bush – Is he just “Jeb” or is he an empty suit?

First off, it should be noted that Jeb Bush is more articulate than his father and his brother. George W. was notorious for stumbling over simple phrasing, but Jeb doesn’t seem to have that problem.

And for a candidate who’s been out of office and politics for years, he actually makes a pretty good case for himself. Jeb didn’t back down when he was asked about Trump’s rhetoric and he didn’t back down from his support for Common Core.

These points are not going to bring him love from the conservative base and we should give him credit for at least sticking by his positions.

That being said, Jeb’s not the least bit credible on immigration. Bush talks again and again about border security, but he will certainly be tied to his brother on this one. George W. talked about border security all the time and never did anything about it. Neither has party leaders John Boehner or Mitch McConnell.

Americans are rejecting the establishment in this election. Jeb Bush reeks of “establishment” with everything he says and does.

Again, would you pledge to vote for him today?

Trump doesn’t care about being liked

Very early on in the debate Megyn Kelly questioned Donald about statements he’d made about women. Let’s just say Trump’s words aren’t something you’d say to your mom.

Trump retorted, “I was only talking about Rosie O’Donnell.” Funny. People laughed.

When Kelly followed up, Trump got a little nasty, basically saying “if you don’t like it…” then concluded with an insult of Kelly.

A violation of decorum to be sure.

Trump had several other moments of that kind, including when he was asked about donating to Democrats and what he received in return and also when he was questioned about taking advantage of bankruptcy laws when building his empire.

“The Donald” act doesn’t really play out in a political debate. He doesn’t care about being liked and that’s something the chattering class has a hard time accepting.

Every other candidate on the stage cares a lot about favorability ratings – the “beauty contest” element of politics. Trump doesn’t. He appeared gleeful in saying that “politicians are stupid” when he was talking about border security.

Corrupt, maybe…but stupid?

With over a month between the first and second debates, it will be interesting to see how people react to the Trump “show.” He’ll almost certainly be in it for the long run, but can he maintain/build support without softening up a little?

Ted Cruz doesn’t care about being liked either, but only by politicians

Senator Ted Cruz was not given much of a chance to speak in Thursday’s debate, virtually disappearing for about a half hour just after Christie was going after Rand Paul.

Cruz was initially asked about his penchant for taking on party leaders – and the fact he called Mitch McConnell a liar (which elicited some boos – who are these people?).

His answer: “I believe the American people are looking for someone to speak the truth… I ain’t your guy if you’re looking for someone to get in bed with the lobbyists and special interests… I will always tell the truth and do what I say I’m going to do.”

Cruz has the record to back up his claims. You just sense that the other candidates don’t like him, see him as an outlier and are hoping against hope that he’ll just shut up.

He won’t. His debate skills are impeccable and there isn’t another candidate who can keep up with his linguistic abilities. His closing statement on God and governing was priceless.

“I read the scriptures and God speaks through the Bible… God turned my father’s life around.”

“The Bible says we shall know them by their fruits… We need a consistent conservative… There are real differences among the candidates… I have stood for religious liberty and life throughout my career and I will continue to do so.”

Cruz’s only potential weakness is his confidence, which some might mistake for arrogance. If he’s able to find a way to look more humble, watch out.

Ben Carson – “I’m a neurosurgeon”

Like Cruz, Ben Carson disappeared for long stretches of time during the debate. At one point he even thanked Megyn Kelly for asking him a question.

Carson’s best moment came at the end of the debate, primarily during his closing statement when he made a funny quip about Washington and having half a brain.

Carson looks unsteady when answering foreign policy questions, but voters will likely give him a pass – for a while, at least.

He said earlier this week that he’s benefitted from Trump’s popularity because it de-emphasizes the value of “experience” in politics. Carson definitely has benefitted from Trump in that sense. It gives him a chance to be up on stage and talk about his wonderful life’s story.

Carson is a brilliant man. His soft-spoken demeanor is the perfect foil to the bombastic Trump. But he’s going to have to go a little deeper into his thought process on governing if he’s going to go far in the primaries.

Do you see him as President Carson? Not yet.

Carson is part of the interesting dynamic that exists with fellow non-politicians like Trump and Carly Fiorina. They represent perhaps the ultimate anti-establishment presence in the race. Time will tell if that can turn into votes, contributions and real support for any of them.

We can’t forget that Herman Cain also had his moment in 2012, only to sink back down to the lower tier.

If Fiorina ascends, who descends?

Nearly everyone was gushing with praise for Carly Fiorina after she stood out in the “Happy Hour” debate earlier in the evening.

Assuming she might gain a few points in the polls, who would she replace in the top ten (for purposes of choosing the next debate participants)?

John Kasich? Kasich is as likeable as a teddy bear. He talks about compassion and Saint Peter and Obamacare and Medicaid expansion – all of which would fit in well in a Democrat debate… well, maybe not the Saint Peter part.

Then he talked about same-sex marriage. “God gives me unconditional love and I’m going to give it to my family and friends.” The audience applauded.

Kasich’s unconditional love is fine, but there are many who think such “love” contradicts the deeply held religious convictions of Christians. If Kasich wants to attend gay weddings, fine, but what about those who have serious conscientious objections to them?

And what about the audience’s reaction…? Kind of surprising there. And disappointing, to tell the truth.

The other candidate who could “descend” is Chris Christie. The neocon wing of the party took his side in the dust-up with Rand Paul, but will the voters? Christie comes across as a non-principled big government bully (Paul’s remark about his “hug” with Obama was hilarious – and true, too).

Christie needed to gain traction by picking a fight, perhaps, but why did he choose to do it with Rand Paul?

Christie needs to steal votes from Jeb Bush… not Paul.

Marco Rubio’s “wimp” factor

Marco Rubio brushed aside a few opportunities to go after Jeb Bush, which just shows the heart of the establishment runs through the Sunshine State. “This election is about the future, not the past.”

We wonder what consultant wrote those words – he uses them every day. Rubio’s fresh face makes it sound nice, but can’t you get yourself to say something about Jeb Bush?

He did well on a couple softball questions (about helping small business? Come on!), but overall he comes off as soft and content-free, particularly when discussing immigration. Rubio’s leading role in the “Gang of Eight” isn’t likely to be forgotten anytime soon. At least by conservatives.

Other than immigration (in a negative way), is there another issue he’s known for?

Back to the campaign trail
Mike Huckabee had another solid debate performance. He’s truly gifted with the ability to come up with one-liners, delivering one after another on a variety of subjects.

But he can’t adequately explain his championing of the FAIR tax and how it will make up the revenue deficit and unfunded entitlement liabilities.

Will he rise in the polls? Who knows.

Scott Walker also had a reasonable showing. He’s no Tim Pawlenty, that’s for certain. Walker needs to expand on some of his issue flip-flops, but he’s a more credible “young” presence in the field than Marco Rubio.

All of the candidates will try and spin Thursday night’s debate moments in their favor. They’ll hit the road, try to raise money and keep an eye on the polls.

And then reconvene to try it again next month at the Reagan library (September 16 on CNN).

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