The first Republican debate was anything but dull. It started with a bang when Donald Trump refused to pledge to support the nominee of the Republican Party, whoever it might be, and left open the possibility of running as an independent if the nominee left him unsatisfied. It proceeded through a rapid-fire series of well-prepared questions carefully tailored to individual candidates. It reached its emotional peak in a vituperative confrontation between New Jersey’s Gov. Chris Christie and Kentucky’s Sen. Rand Paul over the bulk collection of individuals’ communications as a tool in the war on terror.
The disagreement on other issues was more muted. While former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush stood his ground on immigration reform and Common Core education standards as did Ohio’s Gov. John Kasich on his decision to expand Medicaid, the other candidates spent their time laying out their own agendas rather than confronting these dissenters from party orthodoxy.
Although it is hard to know the limits of what Trump’s supporters are willing to tolerate, my hunch is that the debate damaged his prospects. When challenged about numerous statements that seemed on their face to be demeaning to women, he had no effective response. His defense of bankruptcy declarations by several of his corporations was cynical and self-interested. If his debate strategy was to modulate his tone and convey more gravitas than usual, he failed to stick to it.
A number of other candidates failed to advance their prospects. Sen. Rand Paul ended the debate as he began it, as the quirky libertarian outlier with a fervent but limited base of support. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee did little to broaden his appeal beyond social conservatives, a faction of the party where he faces more competitors than when he last ran for president in 2008. Gov. Scott Walker offered competent answers to specific questions but seemed gubernatorial rather than presidential, not quite large enough for higher office. Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson was amiable enough but displayed a shaky command of the issues and little of the rhetorical fire that has endeared him to a number of conservatives.
By contrast, five candidates ended the debate better than they began. Gov. Kasich, a late and relatively little known entrant in the presidential contest, repeatedly drove home his record as the budget-balancing chair of the House Budget Committee and as a successful steward of Ohio’s economy. Gov. Christie was clear, tough, and well-informed on the issues. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio spoke eloquently and paired his youthful persona with a future-oriented message. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz reinforced his strategy of seizing control of the most conservative wing of the Republican Party. And the leading establishment candidate, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, answered many doubts about his candidacy with a forceful presentation of his record, his positions on the issues, and the unifying campaign he hopes to run.
Overall, however, the debate did little to expand the appeal of the Republican brand. With the exception of Bush’s advocacy of immigration reform, the candidates offered little that would make their party more palatable to the portions of the electorate—especially women, young adults, and minorities—where they have struggled in recent presidential elections. The party’s eventual nominee will have to do more to convince persuadable voters that Republicans stand for more than the sentiments of their aging, mostly white, mainly male, and highly disgruntled base.