By Joe Klein
August 7, 2015

Like most debates, the first Republican debate was ultimately about character and presence, about who you are. It was an introduction—for many people, as opposed to junkies and journalists—to candidates they’ve never met before.

Many ridiculous and simplistic and just plain inaccurate things were said—and some pretty smart things, too—but they don’t matter. What mattered was how strong, competent, decent, clever the candidates appeared, and by that standard, there were more winners than losers on stage in Cleveland tonight.

Here’s how I saw them, in pairs.

The Plausibles

Jeb Bush: Seemed presidential, which is important. And he seemed informed, and nobody really took a shot at him, not even Trumpet. He gave strong, clear answers on education, on his record in Florida, on immigration. He faltered occasionally, but did himself no real harm tonight and he established that he will be one of the last of these myriad of Republicans standing.

John Kasich: Didn’t do as well as Bush, but had his moments, especially moments of human decency. He clearly has a record to run on in Ohio, a state that compels attention. Like Bush, he presents the most attractive face of Republicanism to independents and moderate Democrats. But he seemed undisciplined and scattered and too emotional, not yet ready for prime time.

The Young Turks

Marco Rubio: Was sharp and clear, attractive. He was also presidential, in that he always put his answers in a larger historic, national and economic context. He seemed to fade as the debate went on and his closing statement, his usual biographic pitch, seemed flat. He’d been missing in action the past two months, but was a real presence tonight. A positive debate for him.

Scott Walker: Did not distinguish himself. He didn’t show breadth or depth; there were times I forgot he was even onstage. He didn’t establish a strong narrative—and he has one in Wisconsin—or presence; he seemed a generic pol. He did have a nice line, about Russia and China knowing more about what’s in Hillary Clinton’s emails, after recent cyber-attacks, than the U.S. Congress does. (It occurs to me that Walker spent so much time trying to establish that he knows something about foreign policy—which he clearly doesn’t—that he neglected his main selling point to conservatives: his successful battle against the public employees unions in Wisconsin.)

The Wingers

Mike Huckabee: Won this pairing. He was fun, with a lot of clever one-liners. He didn’t do anything to hurt himself with his base of support, but he lost to Chris Christie on the entitlements debate: no one really believes that we can sustain the current Medicare system without reform. Social Security is another matter, and here Huck launched the unique and accurate, but rather overstated argument that a national sales tax, as opposed to an income tax, would raise more money to pay for entitlements because pimps, prostitutes, drug dealers and “illegals” would pay in every time they bought something (obviously, those folks don’t pay income taxes now). He seems jollier having put on weight than he did as a diet-sized skeleton four years ago.

Ted Cruz: Nothing to write home about. He’s smart, but sort of sterile. I suspect that he’ll get mean as this goes on, especially against Bush.

The Fighters

Chris Christie: Is back. He was a strong and aggressive presence on stage tonight. To my mind, he won the harshest confrontation of the night, with Rand Paul, on the issue of unwarranted government data-mining. He talked about the need to go after terrorists with great conviction and it helped that his credibility came from a less-known part of his resume, working as a U.S. Attorney after 9/11. He also handled the question about New Jersey’s lagging economy with humor and aplomb. “You should have seen it when I got there,” he said, referring to his disastrous Democratic predecessor as Governor. I don’t know if there’s any room for him in this race, but there was certainly room for him on this stage.

Rand Paul: Got clobbered tonight, but not on the substance. His most important point in the debate with Christie was swallowed by audience noise and cross-talk: that whenever Christie went after a terrorist, he received a warrant to do so. But Paul seemed a sourpuss, whiny and obscure on stage. He will keep his libertarian following, but won’t break past it. He had the second worst performance of the night.

The Outliers

Ben Carson: Seemed very smart and decent, but I still have no idea what he’s doing here.

Donald Trump: Was dreadful, by any rational standard. But we are not dealing with rationality here. His supporters may have liked it. I’m pretty sure, though, that he didn’t win any new friends and a great many Fox News watchers may not like that he threatened Megyn Kelly. He seemed a nasty piece of work, his face set in a lower-lip-protruding scowl, like the mobster played by Steven Van Zandt on The Sopranos. But I think the moment that hurt him most was his slimy answer on bankruptcy. It was a tool he used to stay rich. He stiffed his lenders out of $1 billion, he laid off 1,100 employees at his Atlantic City casino. But hey, he’s livin’ the dream, right? Would it be too much to hope that this will be the beginning of the end for this twerp?

Finally, the Fox News interviewers—Chris Wallace, Megyn Kelly and Bret Baier—were excellent. They asked tough, informed and substantive questions. They followed up. They allowed the combatants to duke it out. They were extremely well-prepared and fair. They were not pompous or patronizing. Unlike some of the network anchors we’ve seen attempting to be moderators, they didn’t let their egos get in the way of the evening’s entertaining flow. It is not easy to do what they did. I can’t wait for Round 2.

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