The debate was a spectacular stop on the road to the GOP nomination

Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie shake hands following the first official debate of the 2016 Republican presidential primary. Aaron Josefczyk | Reuters

Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie shake hands following the first official debate of the 2016 Republican presidential primary. Aaron Josefczyk | Reuters

It has been about a week since the first Republican presidential debate(s), so we have probably had enough time to let the events marinate in our minds and draw some conclusions.

From my vantage point, I found the performances of certain candidates noteworthy.

Carly Fiorina: The “Blessing in Disguise” award has to go to the former CEO of Hewlett-Packard. Starting the night with low name ID and polling around 2 percent nationally, Fiorina was forced onto the “b-team” stage, with the bottom seven candidates. This was a huge disappointment to her campaign, which had banked on being in the main debate.

It turned out to be the best possible thing for her. Anyone who watched the earlier debate quickly understood she was a much more serious candidate than people believed, which was reinforced later that evening when she went on Hardball with Chris Matthews and left him speechless.

Now in most debate night polls, she has moved up dramatically and sits in third or fourth place nationally, a serious threat to actually win the nomination. Clearly the best night.

Donald Trump: Your opinion on Donald Trump’s night is essentially dictated by what you thought of Trump going into the debate. If you were a supporter, you were likely disgusted with the line of questioning Trump faced and impressed with his answers. If you were not, you almost certainly thought he had a terrible night and were utterly bewildered by his responses.

The post-debate polls paint a confusing picture. The Fox News focus group roundly panned his performance as did the pundits. Initial polls conducted after the debate showed Trump actually increasing his support and his lead. However, in the last day or two, new polls have shown his support dropping significantly.

My own opinion is that we may have seen the first cracks in Trump’s inevitable decline. Trump the man is a personally, professionally, and politically flawed figure, and many (most?) of the supporters he now enjoys have not fully come to grips with that.

Populist anger can distract from that fact for a while, but not for the whole campaign, and I think you started to see some of that last week.

Ben Carson: It’s funny, Ben Carson actually had an awful night. He didn’t get much air time, and when he did, it was very clear that he was reciting the most vague generalities about issues and that there wasn’t a lot behind his answers. Not surprising, as he is easily the most outsider candidate in the field.

But then a funny thing happened. He got a real chance to shine in his last question and then gave easily the best closing remarks of any of the candidates. Those two things together erased his bad night and immediately endeared him to many viewers. He has bought himself a ticket to ride for the foreseeable future.

Marco Rubio: Universal acclaim. I’ve thought for a while Rubio may end up being the “consensus” candidate to satisfy (mostly) establishment and conservative activists alike. He sure looked like that on the debate stage and helped his cause a lot.

Chris Christie and Rand Paul: During the debate, as they were hacking away at each other on national security, I quietly said to myself that the exchange was very good for both men. In retrospect, I don’t think it did much for either. They are both in trouble, especially Paul, and need to do something to break out.

Ted Cruz: Ted Cruz was invisible in this debate and frankly didn’t do all that well even when he was seen. I was expecting a lot more from him, and he did not deliver. He didn’t make any mistakes, mind you, but he felt conventional, programmed and predictable.

Yet, he was one of the highest risers in national polling after the debate. The only explanation I can come up with is that his increase in support is less about a great debate night for him and more about a tough debate night for Trump. As we are now seeing The Donald’s poll numbers come back to earth, it is easy to point to voters switching to another strongly conservative, populist candidate (Cruz).

Everyone else: The remaining candidates actually performed pretty well, I thought, but didn’t really do anything to stand out, grow, or distinguish themselves.

End of the day, it is just one debate and we have a long way to go before there is a nominee. This is just one stop along the way, but it was certainly a spectacular stop, and I enjoyed the heck out of watching.

Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.