Memo to Donald Trump: Carly Fiorina is more than a pretty face.
Looking ahead, MSNBC should preserve CNN's candidate sparring format for its October 28 debate in Boulder, but there should be more of an effort to provide each candidate with comparable time, overall. And it's time to drop back from eleven candidates to ten or perhaps even eight. And possibly skip the earlier debate for candidates polling two percent or less.
The SuperPACs can distort the process by keeping distant candidates in the race. Greedy consultants may encourage a candidate to stay beyond viability, because the money is there. Former three-term Texas Governor Rick Perry showed great integrity by dropping out last week, even before the debate, and despite more than $13 million left in his SuperPAC. His mega-donors understandably now want the money refunded, thus disappointing the vendors who wanted to find another way to waste the commissionable dollars.
Let's rewind to summarize the eleven major candidates.
Jeb Bush: He remains a class act. But he has been out of office for eight years. He has failed to expand beyond country club Republicans and the donor class. Even as he again proclaims, "I'm my own man," he admits his foreign policy advisers are drawn from "41" and "43" -- jargon for his father and brother. If he grasped the dynasty issue, he would have developed his own team of younger advisers without Bush baggage. But he doesn't get it. Bush loves his father, defends his brother, and wants Trump to apologize to his wife... too much drama. For his $100 million ads to take effect, he needs Trump to decline but still remain a factor, otherwise Trump's voters will be distributed to others. Bush wins the "most improved" award, but it may not matter.
Ben Carson: He needed to relate his temperament to the calm deliberation and prudence required for presidential decision-making and thus implicitly take down Trump. Instead, h showed little growth from the first debate and remained ponderous and sometimes reached for words, as when he spoke of a foreign policy "to be aggressive ... where aggression is needed." At times he seems unsure of himself. With his high intelligence, Carson simply needed a strategy and an approach, rhetoric and one-liners, and he could have won this debate, instead Fiorina did.
Chris Christie: Suddenly a born again conservative, this heavyweight said he had vetoed 400 bills. All I could think of was 400 pounds, although Christie has indeed shaped up. Indeed, the debate format favors this feisty and combative former prosecutor. He tried to be above the fray by urging candidates to stop fighting and attack Hillary instead. Christie had a presence and remains in the race.
Ted Cruz: He does better on radio and best when you read what he says. Generally, Cruz does not easily adapt to a national debate audience but meanders into the arcane and esoteric, such as the nuances of Supreme Court nominations. Like others, Cruz spoke of repudiating the "Iran deal" on day one of his presidency. Cruz, who is quite Intelligent and a legal scholar praised for his intellect even by liberal Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz, never explained adequately that if this is not a treaty, then it could end with President Obama's tenure. Republicans should have criticized Obama for evading the constitutional requirement for two-thirds treaty ratification in the U.S. Senate. The well-funded Cruz campaign remains odd: a post-debate email fundraiser from Cruz complains of the hardships of campaigning -- lack of personal and sleep time, and the harmful effects on his health of fast food.
Carly Fiorina: As I predicted, Trump would attack Fiorina's tenure at Lucent and Hewlett-Packard. Her reaction to the question on Trump's "persona" was perfectly calibrated. Trump erred: he needed to remind the audience that he called for Fiorina's inclusion in the debate. There is a double standard applied toward women candidates, and she could smile and show more optimism. But her emotional and eloquent attack on Planned Parenthood showed passion and will draw some evangelicals, and her heartfelt discussion of how drugs took the life of her daughter humanized former CEO Fiorina. When she said no need to talk with Putin, just show him power, she scored points, but others could have noted that Bibi Netanyahu is meeting with Putin. Fiorina then could have noted that Bibi, though prime minister of a tiny nation, is a risk-taking warrior, while Obama, president of the most powerful nation on earth, is a risk-averse community organizer.
Mike Huckabee: Huckabee was unable to break out. If the social conservatives were not split, Huckabee might have hit a home run on same-sex marriage. Instead, he again seemed to demonstrate a narrow base. In fairness to Huckabee, he was only given three questions by CNN.
John Kasich: Others do not perceive Kasich as a threat, so no one challenged his naïve assertion about re-imposing ("snap-back") sanctions on Iran. He did better in the first debate as the "normal" candidate. But how many times can you say you're the son of a mailman? Perhaps as many times as Marco Rubio says he's the son of a bartender. Kasich did not connect, for example, when he said, "If I were at home, I would turn off the debate." Polls in primary states are more important than national polls, and Kasich is targeting New Hampshire, but voters there also watch debates. Kasich must be more than a "play it safe" candidate for the Republican establishment if Bush fails. Kasich needs to acquire contemporary populist issues. Kasich needs to reinvent himself before people tell him to reinvent himself.
Rand Paul: He started the campaign season as the most interesting candidate with novel ideas and outreach to new constituencies. On foreign policy, he had graduated from isolationist to deliberative. But he generally has been defensive and argumentative the last few months. He attacks Trump for being juvenile, but this soap opera, if it hurts Trump, helps others, not Rand Paul. In the debate he raised the issue of too many young people incarcerated for drug usage; other candidates did not agree with Paul on this important outreach issue, so Paul fell flat. He is unlikely to do well in either Iowa or New Hampshire. Before the next debate, will Rand Paul self-deport, along with Lindsay Graham, Bobby Jindal, George Pataki and Rick Santorum?
Marco Rubio: Next to Fiorina, Rubio had the best performance. He seemed positive and optimistic, substantive and detailed. Trump faulted senators for not voting for military intervention in Syria, and Rubio scored by explaining why he could not support the Obama-Kerry "pin-prick" strategy. Rubio came alive and seemed less scripted. He needs a Q&A to be at his best. Once seen as Jeb's protégé, Rubio now seems the most logical generational contrast to Hillary.
Donald Trump: My 14-year-old son watching the debate asked: "Why does Trump look like he doesn't give a crap?" But Trump's body language in the last debate did not hurt him. Much of Trump's support is solid, but this was the opportunity for him to solidify some fellow travelers and to raise his ceiling to gather new support. He needed to demonstrate even rudimentary knowledge of the major issues. Trump squandered the opportunity and showed no growth. He gets so much coverage that everyone has heard all his one-liners. He doesn't need specifics, but he does need at least to give the impression of knowledge.
Scott Walker: Iowa can be more important than national polling numbers, because a win there could affect national polls and provide momentum for wins in other primary states. That was and perhaps is Scott Walker's strategy. But his lackluster performance in two debates will erode his fundraising. He improved from the first debate, but possibly too little, too late. Walker's people say CNN was biased and only gave him two questions. He still talks in sound bites ("big and bold") rather than seizing the moment. He has that wide-eyed look and raised eyebrows, as if to say, "Why am I here?" He lacks intimacy and talks into space. Even if he somehow wins Iowa, it's unlikely the momentum would give him New Hampshire.