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Presidential Horse Race 2016: Are we seeing a kinder, gentler Donald?

The television ratings figures are in from Wednesday night’s CNN Republican debate and it turns out Americans are still very interested in this year’s candidates. When last month’s Fox News debate attracted an astounding 24 million viewers, many wondered whether that success would be repeated again on a network not known for its kindness to Republicans.

Donald Trump Jeb BushIt was. Hadas Gold of Politico reports, “More than 22 million people tuned into the three-hour long primetime debate on Wednesday night. An additional 4.5 million peopled tuned into the livestream online, CNN said. The network pegged its number of viewers at 22.9 million by looking at the 8:15 to 11:15 p.m. EST timeframe when the actual candidates were on stage debating.”

The overall numbers were down slightly from Fox but the forum still rates as CNN’s most-watched program of all time. (Note: the undercard debate drew 6.3 million, up a tad from the Fox “Happy Hour” debate in August.)

Because of the length and intensity of the event, some people compared it to running a marathon. The candidates themselves talked about the difficulty of standing for three hours and fighting to stay sharp while sometimes having to wait for long periods before their next chance to speak.

Again, Gold reports, “By the third hour of CNN's GOP presidential debate, the candidates looked like long-distance runners fading in the final lap: A sweating Marco Rubio ran his hands through his hair, Chris Christie's face turned red, a sagging Donald Trump grasped his lectern for support and, at times, seemed to crumple into his suit.”

Imagine the plight of the debate attendees who had to remain parked in their seats for almost five hours. It was hard enough watching on a comfy couch – it must have been excruciating to actually sit there and stay quiet for all that time.

CNN said three hours was necessary to get deeply enough into the issues. In that sense, they’re probably right. It was a tough slog – but if someone has a better suggestion, please speak up.

Fiorina won on stage and with the pundits

Carly Fiorina was the only woman on stage at the debate but she stood out for more than just gender. Her succinctly detailed answers revealed her grasp of policy and her rare talent in being able to articulate a vision was unmatched on Wednesday night.

She followed up a similar showing in the “Happy Hour” debate in Cleveland last month. What if CNN hadn’t changed its criteria to allow her to participate with the “varsity” this time around?

Byron York of the Washington Examiner reports on Fiorina’s dominance on Wednesday. “When a candidate has a Big Moment — when he or she takes down an opponent or delivers a point in such a powerful way that everybody remembers it as a highlight of the debate — that's often enough to energize a campaign for days, or even weeks, to come. Fiorina…had at least four.”

York lays out all four moments. If you’ve got the time, it’s certainly worth reading.

Based on the two debates, we know Carly is one of the more articulate candidates in the field (I was about to say the most articulate, but you have to give props to Ted Cruz and maybe Marco Rubio as well). People are fascinated by someone who “tells it like it is.”

There’s still a lot of time between today and next year’s caucuses and primaries. Up until now at least, Fiorina has lacked the exposure to raise the kind of money she’ll need to build the campaign infrastructure to compete in the early states.

And the more intense scrutiny of her campaign will bring the sometimes unfair glare of the media spotlight. She’s already being portrayed as someone who’s cold and stern. One reporter even claimed she didn’t smile the entire time on Wednesday (which was proven to be false by John Nolte of Breitbart).

Lastly on Carly, she also needs to be vetted, since she must answer for some less-than-conservative aspects of her past. It’s all part of the process.

But she’s off to a great start and it’s good for people to be excited about a new “face” in Republican politics.

(Click here for Timothy Carney’s candidate rankings, where Fiorina has moved up to second place behind Donald Trump.)

No more “Happy Hour” debates?

As mentioned above, Wednesday night’s “undercard” debate featuring Bobby Jindal, Rick Santorum, Lindsey Graham and George Pataki drew about a quarter of the viewers the primetime forum mustered.

The numbers were similar to last month’s – which ultimately provided Fiorina with her breakout moment. Over 6 million viewers is nothing to sneeze at, though with only four candidates taking part in the early event – all of whom poll at around 1% -- it looked a little strange seeing them being given all that time to discuss the same issues as the leaders.

Now it looks like the networks and the RNC might be ready to scrap the idea of hosting two separate debates.

Ben Kamisar of The Hill reports, “’I doubt there will be an undercard,’ Sean Spicer, the RNC’s communications director and chief strategist, said Thursday on CNN’s ‘At This Hour’ about next month’s debate on CNBC, noting that it initially made sense to schedule a debate featuring second-tier candidates to showcase the ‘historic’ large field.”

Naturally the lower-tier campaigns aren’t happy about the prospect of being left off any stage for the debates. But Spicer has a point – the candidates have been given two opportunities to present themselves and you have to narrow the field at some point.

John Kasich is this year’s Jon Huntsman

Speaking of lower-tier (or should be), when Ohio Gov. John Kasich entered the race a few months ago, many wondered why the Obamacare Medicaid expansion-accepting socially liberal but affable politician from an electorally crucial state would think he had a chance in a field fully stacked with solid conservatives and populist favorites.

Erick Erickson provides an answer. Kasich discovered a niche that wasn’t yet filled. “Kasich is running a Jon Huntsman campaign, complete with Jon Huntsman’s team. It is a race that tries to portray him as the grown up, sophisticated person in the room.

“This is the ‘MSNBC deal waiting to happen’ John Kasich who comforts the media circle of jerks and mega-donors of America that there are Republicans who, when they wear Jesus on their sleeve, do so in favor of bigger government.”

As Erickson mentioned, Kasich has Huntsman’s people in charge of his campaign – including Democrat John Weaver, who ran John McCain’s successful effort in New Hampshire in 2000 (he was fired by the McCains after returning in 2007).

No wonder Kasich is doing as well as he is in the Granite State – he’s using a successful playbook.

Kasich went out of his way to shame his fellow Republicans on Wednesday night, vying for the title of “adult at the table” who would rise above the bickering to lead the country back down the road to prosperity.

There’s only one problem: Kasich doesn’t appeal to anyone outside his very narrow group of big government loving, socially liberal Republicans. “Tax hikers, social liberals, and failures — those three groups make up the core support of Kasich’s base,” Erickson wrote.

Kasich is no John McCain. He doesn’t have an established national profile and there are already a few candidates running this year who are more acceptable to the party establishment than he is. Huntsman didn’t get far in 2012 and Kasich won’t go far next year.

He should free up space on the stage for Bobby Jindal and drop out now. At least Jindal has something intelligent to add to the conversation.

Is this a new, kinder, gentler Donald?

Finally this week, for anyone who saw Trump’s post-debate interview where he praised his fellow competitors – “I thought we all did pretty well” – you may have noticed a change in tone in the typically edgy Donald.

As reported by Nick Gass of Politico, Trump’s new “persona” was back on Thursday morning as well. “There's no way of telling if Trump's relatively subdued tone during the debate and day after is here to stay, but it seemed to usher in a new chapter of the Trump presidential saga, even if it's fleeting. His notorious Twitter feed on Thursday was even upbeat and restrained (for Trump).”

Has The Donald been listening to critics who’ve been blasting his lack of civility in the campaign? And if he has, does this mean he’ll gain in popularity or lose the loyalty of those who like his combative style?

The coming days and weeks will reveal the answer. It’s been a heck of a campaign thus far and it only looks to get better.

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Trump has my vote we need someone that is not a lying professional politican