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Long IslandColumnistsDan Janison

After Republican debates, hard to assess who gains, who loses

From left, Republican presidential candidates Jim Gilmore, Lindsey

From left, Republican presidential candidates Jim Gilmore, Lindsey Graham, Bobby Jindal, Rick Perry, Rick Santorum, Carly Fiorina and George Pataki take the stage at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland on Thursday, Aug. 6, 2015, in Cleveland. They did not qualify for the prime-time debate. Credit: AP / Andrew Harnik

The participation of 17 Republican presidential candidates in two debates Thursday produced an unwieldy mosh pit of grandstanding, unchallenged boasts and unchecked broadsides.

Billionaire real estate scion Donald Trump, of course, drew the most visceral reactions, like a WWE performer. As expected, he put boastfulness and bombast on display. The downside: It became easy to imagine how his constant exposure could really start to wear on viewers' nerves.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) played up his youthful profile -- and undoubtedly won some new interest. He spoke more smoothly than others, didn't brawl and projected earnestness in talking about his Cuban-American parents and working-class roots.

In the 10-way and seven-way scrums, held four hours apart, common themes emerged: self-flattering introductions; policy positions made to sound bold and distinctive; and firm adherence to sentimental correctness.

During the earlier, second-rank debate, former Hewlett-Packard executive Carly Fiorina -- the only woman onstage all night -- established an ability to hold her own, with clearly stated positions on foreign policy and the Trump question.

Some Democrats and centrists might have found an oasis of moderation in Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who denounced divisiveness while diplomatically acknowledging that Trump touched "a nerve" on illegal immigration. But did enough people notice him?

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) drew attention as Trump's most eager challenger. Paul has all along appealed to a certain libertarian sensibility. On this occasion he sought to use Trump as a foil to align himself with GOP and conservative policies. It's unclear whether he succeeded.

At either event, someone could have yelled "hey, governor" and seen several candidates turn around. There were three former governors and one current one in the seven-way debate, and three current governors and two former ones in the 10-way debate.

Generally, these candidates dressed up their incumbencies as successes that would presage their presidencies. Jeb Bush cited his time as Florida governor to offset the idea that his prospective presidency would merely be part of a family dynasty.

Trump became the only one of 10 candidates in the prime-time debate to say he wouldn't necessarily support the nominated Republican. He pouted after Fox News' Megyn Kelly pressed him on having called women "pigs" and when she contested his on-the-spot claim that he only applied it to Rosie O'Donnell. He complained about "political correctness." He asserted that illegal immigration wouldn't have been an issue without his earlier remarks about Mexico -- remarks he did not back up with facts when challenged by a moderator.

Paul slammed Trump as a provider of political payoffs, a supporter of Hillary Clinton for the Senate and a supporter of a single-payer health insurance system -- in short, an opportunistic Democrat. Jeb Bush confronted Trump at the moderators' urging over what Bush had already termed the businessman's "ugly" remarks about those coming from over the border.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie got to mix it up, too, but seemed sidelined when not in combat. He accused Paul of "blowing hot air" over civil liberties and the Patriot Act. Paul cited Christie's embrace of President Barack Obama after superstorm Sandy. It was reminiscent of the 2008 debates, when Paul's father, Rep. Ron Paul, traded fire with ex-New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani over the 9/11 attacks.

Whether the forums gave anyone particular momentum could come out in polls of the field over the next few weeks. With 17 participants, this was not immediately possible to tease out.


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