Jeb Bush, right, during a break in the Republican presidential debate on Thursday. (Photo: Andrew Harnik/AP)
CLEVELAND — Jeb Bush was uneven and tepid in his first debate as a presidential candidate.
The former Florida governor struggled to find a comfort zone in the debate setting, looking at times like he was trying to process a multitude of thoughts simultaneously, very unlike his more confident self on the campaign trail in less formal settings.
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If Bush is workmanlike in a speech, but animated and inspired in a question-and-answer session or a town hall setting, then in his first time on the debate stage he looked uncertain.
“He’s got to look the part,” one of his advisers said before the night kicked off. Bush did not for most of the night. He stumbled over his words, lacked assertiveness and failed to go on offense as aggressively as he could have.
Bush supporters argued he had done all that he needed or even intended to do: show up, be steady, and play it safe.
“He’s keeping his place and showing that he is different than the family name, that he has his own distinct record,” said Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., who was one of several members of Congress who spoke to reporters afterwards on Bush’s behalf.
Even Bush’s most ardent critics didn’t put a ton of stock in the significance of one night.
“He gave mangled answers. … I don’t think he helped himself. I don’t think he hurt himself,” said Brent Bozell, a veteran conservative movement leader supporting Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who has repeatedly bashed Bush and called him “unelectable.”
In the pixelated moment we now live in, Thursday’s debate took on the significance at times of an enormous event, a hinge in history. It was held in a massive basketball arena, home to one of the greatest basketball players ever, LeBron James. Media obsessed about it for weeks and descended on this city in record numbers.
If an alien species had arrived somewhere in America on Thursday night, it might have thought the millions of people in this land were about to take some great action.
Fox News’ Megyn Kelly, one of the three debate moderators, billed it as a “moment of truth” as a boom camera zoomed over the audience in the opening moments. It was not. It was an introduction.
Most of the country had never seen or heard many of the candidates. And while the coverage may have been breathless, most of the candidates and their campaigns approached Thursday night with measured expectations.
“This is the beginning,” said Jason Miller, a spokesman for Cruz. “Your goal with these is to improve your score each round.”
Bush did “pivot into the record” as an aide had promised, repeatedly touting his accomplishments in two terms as governor. And he had high moments, particularly when he defended his education record and when he critiqued businessman Donald Trump as “divisive” and made a call for the Republican Party to “unite people with a hopeful, optimistic message.”
The optimism was there, but the gravitas was not. There will be at least eight more of these debates, and he has time to grow into the format and improve. He will need to.
Many of the nine other Republican candidates on the stage helped themselves with solid performances that give them an opportunity to draw more interest. Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker performed admirably in their first real time on the national stage. Kasich, in particular, on his home turf with an enthusiastic crowd behind him, gave a deft answer to Fox’s Bret Baier when asked how he would explain his opposition to gay marriage if one of his daughters told him she was gay.
“I’m an old-fashioned person here, and I happen to believe in traditional marriage,” Kasich said. “Because somebody doesn’t think the way I do doesn’t mean that I can’t care about them or can’t love them. So if one of my daughters happened to be that, of course I would love them and I would accept them.
“Because, you know what, God gives me unconditional love. I’m going to give it to my family and my friends and the people around me,” he said. The crowd applauded enthusiastically.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie — both a bit more well known nationally than Walker and certainly Kasich — also did well.
Rubio was polished and composed from the beginning, and despite the vows from advisers that he wanted to do as little to make waves as possible — other than to make a good first impression — he delivered some of the night’s best one-liners. As the debate wound down, Kelly asked the candidates to say whether they receive divine guidance from God, and Rubio responded: “I think God has blessed us. He has blessed the Republican Party with some very good candidates. The Democrats can’t even find one.”
Rubio avoided confrontation with his fellow candidates and went after leading Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, the former secretary of state.
“If I’m our nominee, how is Hillary Clinton gonna lecture me about living paycheck to paycheck? I was raised paycheck to paycheck,” he said. “If I’m our nominee, we will be the party of the future.”
Christie clashed harshly with Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., over national security and civil liberties, and with former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee over how to address looming shortfalls in funding for Medicare and Social Security.
Christie kept his composure, scored points when he could and, like Bush, touted his record in New Jersey persuasively.
“Gov. Christie took his time and was patient and when the questions came he answered them forcefully,” said senior adviser Mike DuHaime. “The game came to him tonight.”
DuHaime said Paul “looked desperate” when he tried to interject himself into several exchanges, including at the beginning, when Baier pressed Trump over his refusal to rule out a bid for president as an independent candidate if he does not win the Republican nomination.
Trump — the center of attention for weeks leading up to Thursday night and the current leader in the national polls — was erratic. At moments, he marshaled his outsized personality in service of sentiments that many conservatives find appealing, railing against political correctness and thundering that Bush’s call for measured tones is irrelevant.
“When you have people that are cutting Christians’ heads off, when you have a world that the border and at so many places, that it is medieval times, we’ve never … it almost has to be as bad as it ever was in terms of the violence and the horror, we don’t have time for tone. We have to go out and get the job done,” he said, offering no specifics.
But his critique of political correctness came in response to Kelly’s question about his past criticism of women that he disagreed with, in which he referred to some as “fat pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animals,” As Kelly put it.
Trump was one of the few candidates to speak with the scrum of reporters in the “spin room” behind the debate stage afterward, along with retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson. When he entered the room, a crush of TV cameras and media rushed toward him and enveloped him.
Bob Grady, an adviser to Christie, watched from a distance and remarked, “What happens when this guy implodes? Where does that 30 percent go? That’s the game right now.”