There was at least one clear winner during last night’s Republican presidential debate in Cleveland, if you ask me: moderator Megyn Kelly. Early in the debate, she directed this question to Donald Trump, the current frontrunner for the nomination: “You’ve called women you don’t like ‘fat pigs’, ‘dogs’, ‘slobs’ and ‘disgusting animals.’ Does that sound to you like the temperament of a man we should elect as president?”
Two hours later, when the candidates left the stage, Trump was still brooding about how “nasty” Kelly had been, though he had responded to the question itself with a spirited defense, and many members of the audience in Cleveland were clearly receptive to the argument that Trump’s boorishness only proves what a straight shooter he is. And viewers in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina gave Kelly mixed reviews for her overall performance last night. But the fact that Trump complained about Kelly’s tone retroactively corroborates her point: the only “nasty” words in her questions to him were the ones he has directed at various women, which she was quoting back to him.
All three moderators—Chris Wallace and Bret Baier were the others—showed a steely edge all evening, especially toward Trump’s grandstanding. Watching it, I had a distinct impression that the moderators—as conservatives who have successful careers in television and who would be uniquely equipped to assess others in that position—clearly see Trump as a snake-oil salesman, brazenly hawking his garbage to a gullible public.
Since Republican primary voters are apparently gullible enough to make Trump the frontrunner, though, it’s a little tricky trying to draw conclusions about the candidates themselves. I was impressed by Marco Rubio, who seemed to have been airlifted in from an alternative reality where the Republican Party is having a robust debate about the future of the country, and can be optimistic about its chances of retaking the White House in 2016. I was most surprised by Ben Carson, who’s been flat-footed in several TV appearances but came across as drolly self-aware about the situation on stage last night. Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey, benefited from the lurid caricature being offered by Trump, and from questions about national security that let him draw on his experience as a U.S. attorney—and contrast that work with Rand Paul’s. Since I was keeping an eye on the Texans, I noticed that Ted Cruz gave a solid performance, but apparently he was more or less lost in the shuffle.
On balance, I agree with Jim Geraghty, at National Review: in comparison to Trump, all the other candidates came across as serious. I thought the same of the seven candidates, including former Governor Rick Perry, who debated earlier in the day, at the overflow debate. But that was mostly true before the debate, too, and I expect we’ll see an even bigger lead for Trump in the next round of polls. If so, we might retroactively declare another winner from last night: Hillary Clinton.