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The biggest, most surprising news out of last night’s debate is that the moderators did really well. Megyn Kelly, Bret Baier, and Chris Wallace were prepared, tough, adept at managing a big crowd on stage, and only occasionally succumbed to Fox News-style right wing pandering. Kudos to them (aside from the unfortunate “God” question at the end) for a job surprisingly well done. They made Fox News look like a respectable news operation for a couple of hours, and that is not easy to do.
Beyond the moderators, I’d give the night to Marco Rubio and John Kasich, with one big caveat. Both of them handled pretty much every question smoothly, and some more than that. They both made a solid “conservative” case while also looking like plausible general election candidates.
The caveat, of course, is Donald Trump. If any other candidate had turned in the performance he gave, we’d call it a disaster. But because it’s Trump, we honestly don’t know. Everyone was ready to call him done after his John McCain comments, but he only got stronger. One thing is for sure: he was the Donald everyone expected. So I really don’t think we can say how Trump did last night until we see some post-debate polling, campaign events, etc. The pundits (like our friend Joan Vennochi) who are gleefully declaring his moment over are, with all respect, not entirely clear on why he is polling so well in the first place.
Also worth noting is that, of the second-tier candidates who participated in the 5 pm “happy hour” debate, Carly Fiorina clearly distinguished herself as someone worth watching. It’ll be interesting to see whether her strong performance translates into anything more substantial.