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The Las Vegas Debate In Person: Surprises, Questions, Outcomes, Predictions (Forbes.com) December 16, 2015

Posted by daviddavenport in Op/Eds.


I went to my first presidential debate in person in Las Vegas.  Actually I went to two since, if you had a ticket, you were supposed to fill your seat all afternoon and evening for television.  And I’m glad I did because now I have several new and different ideas about the race than before.


First, a few surprises.  Unlike many sports, presidential debates are better in person than on television.  You find out who is a good platform speaker in a large hall (Cruz, Rubio, Trump) and who is not (Carson and Fiorina are too soft-spoken).   You see interesting interactions off-camera.  Also surprising was that the first debate with Pataki, Graham, Huckabee and Santorum was a much better exchange than the second with the 9 leading candidates.  Whether it was the smaller format (4 vs. 9) or the fact that so little was at stake, those in the “undercard” debate had a more thoughtful and less contentious discussion about terrorism and the war against ISIS, and produced more fruitful and nuanced proposals.


Now a couple of questions, both going to how much a candidate’s debate performance affects success in the polls.  First, why is Ben Carson, who is not a good debater at all, doing so well in the polls?  Carson seems devoid of energy in a debate and is essentially a non-factor, neither drawing a lot of questions nor comments from the other candidates.   On the other hand, why is Marco Rubio polling so modestly when he seems obviously to be the best speaker with the most specifics?


My conclusions are not terribly hopeful for the Republicans.  One conclusion is that these regular debates with a stage full of candidates cannot be helping the party.  The Las Vegas debate, except for a few niceties at the beginning and end, was mostly a food fight.  Jeb Bush obviously came to attack Donald Trump as “unhinged” and “not a serious candidate,” but offered few specifics to back up those charges.  Chris Christie was at least a bit more entertaining attacking all the senators as part of the problem when he, as a governor, would be different.  Carly Fiorina declared a pox on all their houses since she was a corporate executive and not one of these squabbling politicians.  And isolationist Rand Paul said again that he is the only true conservative.  Much of the energy came out of the audience during all this bickering and fighting.


This particular debate got hung up in all the wrong places.  Far too much time was once again devoted to Donald Trump and his wild ideas—forbidding Muslims to enter the country, building a wall, etc.  Then, to make matters worse, the four senators started arguing among themselves about who supported what bill and what that meant.  Finally, Christie called them out for playing insider baseball, but it had gone on far too long.


Another tough conclusion I drew is that, at the end of the day, Republicans will not emerge from this debate process with a strong field.  As we conclude 2015 and 5 debates, and are now entering the 2016 election year, I am prepared to say there will be 3 or possibly 4 semi-finalists:  Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and possibly (but in my view doubtfully) Ben Carson.  They were the 4 on center stage in Las Vegas and are likely to remain through the primaries.   Although at one time, many thought this would be the strongest Republican field in some time, think about the experience of those four.  Neither Trump nor Carson has any electoral or governing experience, while Cruz and Rubio are both young, first-term senators.  For whatever reason, the people and the polls have consistently said “no” to the more experienced hands:  Bush, Christie, Kasich, Paul.


The show was not exactly Viva Las Vegas at the Venetian, but I’m glad I saw it.


To see the column at Forbes.com:





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