Only one debater left Cleveland in a stronger position than when she arrived, and the pronoun gives away her identity: Carly Fiorina. She managed the rare trick of maintaining her dignity while demonstrating her combativeness. Whichever pundit first suggested that there might be advantages to appearing on the less contentious 5 p.m. stage rather than the 9 p.m. all-holds brawl—that pundit had a point.
The majority of the debaters leave Cleveland no worse off than they were before. But the two candidates long thought of as front-runners look seriously worse today than yesterday: Jeb Bush and Scott Walker.
Donald Trump was riding high before the debate and continues to ride high now; Jim Gilmore and George Pataki had nowhere to go but up; for John Kasich, simply making it onto the 9 p.m. stage counted as a victory; and Rand Paul and Chris Christie face campaign problems that are so serious that one bad night at a debate doesn’t make a difference.
A few candidates return home bruised, but for now unbloodied. Even Ben Carson’s most fervent admirers must wonder today whether politics really is the right field for his talents. Marco Rubio—who generally showed to advantage last night—was pushed to take a position on granting exceptions in the cases of rape, incest, and danger to the life of the mother to a hypothetical abortion ban. He seemed to suggest that he was opposed to such exceptions—the right answer for a Republican primary, apparently, but the wrong answer for a general election.