Tonight, leading Republican presidential candidates will take the debate stage in Las Vegas for the final contest of the calendar year. I’ll be tuning in from my living room, but last month, I was in the audience of the Miluwakee GOP debate—and saw some things that don’t translate onto your TV screen.
My take on the candidates after watching them in person, in the order they’ll appear on stage:
Wasn’t his campaign rumored to be folding up weeks ago? It should have. On the debate stage, Kasich came across as the annyoing, slightly out-of-control obnoxious uncle at the wedding reception. When he wasn’t interrupting, he was trying to, his hand waggling at the moderators in an attempt to insert himself into every conversation. While there is something to be said for being an active participant in these crowded affairs, Kasich’s perpetually low standing in the race doesn’t exactly give him the authority to do so. By the end of the evening, the crowd audibly groaned and rolled eyes at each other when he spoke.
Remember the Carly Fiorina we saw in her primetime debate debut back in September? She’s gone. I was struck by how soft-spoken and reserved she played her performance—neither of which did her any favors. Part of what made Fiorina rocket up in the polls was the no-nonsense force she displayed in the first two debates. While she’s still formidable on substance, her new strategy to come across softer and gentler is ill-advised. She was easily forgotten in the crowd, and mildly frustrating for how completely she disregarded the answer time limits.
If ever there was a candidate who looks at home on the debate stage, Marco Rubio is it. From his oft-struck stance behind the podium (one foot forward, one back on its toes) he exudes confidence under the lights. He also seemed to have the best read of the physical crowd, cracking the occasional joke (like plugging his website after Ted Cruz had repeatedly—and somewhat annoyingly—done the same, earning a genuine laugh from the audience) and feeding off its energy effectively. His name was the one I overheard the most as I left the venue.
If Kasich is the obnoxious uncle, Carson is the affable relative you’re always happy enough to see, but find your conversations with to be a little irrelavant. He’s so nice he’s almost boring. He earned plenty of applause, but it wasn’t the raucous cheers some other candidates generated, and he, too, faded into the background of the overcrowded stage.
For as bombastic as he is on the campaign trail, Trump was oddly lackluster in person. When he spoke, you could actually sense the crowd leaning in, waiting to react to some outlandish statement or off-color jab. When he rarely delivered either, the audience grew irritated at his lack of entertainment value (which is, let’s face it, his role in the race). The guy sitting behind me muttered in obvious disgust more than once, “There’s your frontrunner, folks.” He sells books from a giant bus with his face plastered on it just outside the venue (tacky). Perhaps most notably: in person, the hair is quite terrific.
Overall, Cruz was received well by the audience. He’s a skilled debater and it shows. He jumps in and delivers memorable lines very effectively, and along with Rubio, had the most measurable crowd reactions. His weakness in this arena is his tendency to slip into “frustrated televangelist” mode but that kind of approach panders to his base, so it’s undoubtedly a conscious stylistic choice.
Memo to Bush staff: work on this guy’s posture. Slouching behind the podium, Bush appears disinterested and distracted from what’s going on when it’s not his turn to speak. He’s easily the least self-aware candidate on stage; when Carson was delivering his very sobering closing statement, Bush was grinning and waving at someone in the audience and it illustrated perfectly his disconnect in the race. He’s there, but is he really there?
Relegated to the undercard debate in November, Christie was the clear winner of his debate heat. Another skilled debater, Christie—perhaps better than anyone else in the field—is able to wrap up an issue and put a tidy little bow on it in his frank, no-nonsense way. If Trump were not in this field, Christie would be occupying his space as the outspoken, bombastic East Coaster, but instead he’s dangerously close to becoming an also-ran.
In a word: exasperated. The feeling from Paul is that he’s perpetually irritated—about his low standings in the polls, about being picked on by Trump, about not getting enough camera time, etc., etc. What’s most notable about Paul are his followers: college-aged guys who love making noise more than they do paying attention to what’s actually being said. I sat by a few of them, and my ears may still be ringing from their continual hooting and hollering.
Some things to look for in tonight’s debate:
-Will the candidates turn on Trump and openly attack his increasingly fringe positions?
-Will Cruz focus his attacks on Trump or Rubio? He’s done both in recent days and it’s two very different campaign strategies.
-Will national security questions all but eliminate Carson’s viability as a candidate? It’s reportedly the reason for his rapid slide in recent polling.
-Will Rubio have a breakout moment? The consensus is he’s performed well in previous debates, but he needs to make a real run for the top at some point.
It will be an interesting one to watch, no doubt—and even more interesting to sniff out the details we won’t see on TV tonight.