First GOP Presidential Debate: 17 Takeaways
Image Credit: Gage Skidmore

First GOP Presidential Debate: 17 Takeaways


Like Roman gladiators in a grand spectacle, 17 GOP contenders battled for campaign standing and survival in two tiers. Tier one included the top ten based on aggregate polling average: Donald Trump, Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Mike Huckabee, Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Chris Christie, and John Kasich. Tier two for the remaining seven: Rick Perry, Rick Santorum, Bobby Jindal, Carly Fiorina, Lindsey Graham, George Pataki, and Jim Gilmore. We offer 17 takeaways from the first round and implications for our Asia audience:

Trump True to Form. Billionaire Donald Trump remained true to form in his first debate. When all candidates were asked by the moderator to pledge support to the eventual GOP nominee and not run as an independent, Trump was the only candidate to decline a pledge – predictably delivering his brand of bravado and brashness. In taking shots at China, Japan and Mexico as well as the U.S. government, Trump effectively channeled the anger and angst of average Americans.

Bush “Own Man.”  Jeb Bush, former governor of Florida, held his own in distinguishing himself from his father and brother – Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush. His repetition of conservative principles in his track record yielded focused messaging, but not the stellar performance needed to distance himself as leader of the pack.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Walker on Script. With high expectations as fresh blood of GOP presidential leadership, Scott Walker, governor of Wisconsin, gave a solid performance by sticking to his talking points on foreign policy issues – building coalitions with Arab allies, restoring missile defense in Poland, and standing up to Iran. Walker has yet to demonstrate strategic thinking beyond his highly scripted debate delivery.

Huckabee Homestyle. Former governor of Arkansas Mike Huckabee’s homestyle humor and hawkish stance are a winning combination in conveying authenticity. In portraying himself as a man of the masses, Huckabee’s folksy preacher fluency in policy issues needs to find greater appeal beyond conservative evangelicals and blue-collar workers.

Carson The Congenial. Neurosurgeon Ben Carson’s congeniality and contemplative demeanor have propelled his appeal as a non-politician candidate. When asked if he’s electable despite minimal foreign policy understanding, his humorous reply of “having a brain to figure things out” elicited audience applause. Carson deftly elevated his electability factor. His ongoing challenge will be to accelerate traction and demonstrate command of policy issues with more granularity.

Cruz The Crusader.  As a polarizing figure in the Republican party and Congress, U.S. Senator from Texas Ted Cruz reinforced his far-right ideological platform. Touting himself as a “consistent conservative” and a “commander-in-chief who will always speak the truth,” Cruz’s rhetoric may appeal to Tea Party constituents but has yet to gain currency with conservative moderates and independents. Citing the role of China and Russia in cyberwarfare against the United States, Cruz will need to provide comprehensive thinking on cybersecurity in U.S. policy toward Asia.

Rubio Revved Up. U.S. Senator of Florida Marco Rubio delivered on rhetoric and wit. Positioning himself as the candidate of the future and “new American century,” Rubio adeptly interwove his immigrant history into the great American dream narrative. Questioned as to whether or not he has sufficient executive leadership experience to lead the United States, Rubio underscored the need for a leader of the future who understands the rapidly changing global economy. While Rubio avoided direct blows from rivals, he has yet to prove his presidential mettle. 

Paul Unleashed. U.S. Senator of Kentucky Rand Paul positioned himself as a “different kind of Republican” – advocating a non-interventionist approach in foreign policy and civil liberties. In going head-to-head with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, referencing his “Obama hug,” Paul has and will likely continue to take swipes at fellow contenders – a tactic indicative of tougher battles in future debate rounds.

Christie Charged. Christie charged right into the ring with a shot across the bow at Rand Paul’s “sitting on a sub-committee blowing hot air about this [NSA data collection].” Brandishing his no-nonsense, straight-talking forte on strengthening the U.S. military and making Israel a priority, Christie salvaged his much-beleaguered standing. His ability to retain enough torque to fight another day will require refining and broadening his message on a national level.

Kasich Candor. Governor of Ohio John Kasich spoke with candor and conviction. Despite his late entry into the race, the governor parlayed his personal and professional story into campaign momentum. His well-rounded government and private sector executive leadership experience makes him a serious contender, though expanding his name recognition on a national level will remain a paramount challenge.


Perry Parried. Redemption was the aim for former governor of Texas Rick Perry. The onus was on Perry to repair his image after abysmal performances at the 2012 presidential debates. Perry pounced on each question with guns blazing, declaring “hell no” to the Iran deal that empowers a terrorism-supporting regime and descrying Washington’s inaction on illegal immigration. Though better prepared substantively this time, Perry’s cowboy style didn’t seem presidential.

Santorum Staid. When asked whether his moment had passed and if America needed new, fresh leadership, former U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania and 2012 U.S. presidential contender, Rick Santorum touted 16 years of Washington experience and all his past accomplishments. In portraying himself as a leader of vision, he recycled his same 2012 message of championing blue-collar workers and restoring America’s manufacturing might. Santorum’s spiel lacked newness and freshness. Hindsight clarifies the past; foresight paves the future. He grasped the former, but lacked the latter.

Jindal Juggle. Governor of Louisiana Bobby Jindal juggled many issues without conveying a clear message of how his leadership would be distinct.  Though he claims to have “backbone and bandwidth,” low polling among his constituents in Louisiana and an even poorer showing in national polls belie his claims. Though the first Indian-American presidential contender, his ability to appeal to the broader electorate remains to be seen.

Fiorina on Fire. Carly Fiorina, former CEO of a Fortune 50 company, set the stage ablaze with policy specificity and lucid messaging. The only tier-two candidate to call out China and Russia on their cyberwalls and roles in the Iran deal, Fiorina commanded confidence on national security issues. With her comments televised at the tier one debate, Fiorina could potentially join the heavyweights in the next round. Despite regurgitating her oft-repeated talking points, Fiorina made a compelling case for her status-quo-breaking leadership approach. By spotlighting her non-membership in the political class, she differentiated herself from rivals.

Graham Grit. U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina maintained his mantra of strong national security cred and humble beginnings. Graham’s grit on dealing with ISIS and promoting energy independence accentuated his campaign narrative. His visceral pounding against Hillary Clinton, however, may alienate female constituents. In portraying himself ready to be commander-in-chief on day one of his potential presidency, Graham must deliver a message that reaches beyond foreign policy and resonates with the domestic priorities of the general electorate.

Pataki Paled. Former governor of New York George Pataki’s solid but lackluster performance failed to inspire. Despite his governorship during September 11, 2001 and its aftermath, his impact was eclipsed by New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s highly publicized charismatic leadership in the face of the nation’s tragedy.

Gilmore Glamour-less. By listing all his past accomplishments and titles within the first 30 seconds of his introduction, former governor of the state of Virginia Jim Gilmore seemed to be at a job interview rather than a nationally televised presidential debate. Barely registering in national polls, Gilmore needs to translate his experience into an appealing message.

For Asia, this first of future debates for Republican and Democratic presidential contenders reveal the entertaining and empowering dimensions of the democratic process in an open society. In response to questions ranging from policy issues to personal belief in God, candidates freely articulated their stance. As a country where candidates from diverse backgrounds, creeds and ethnicity can run in a presidential election, the United States requires strong leadership to uphold these American ideals in the face of increasingly complex global challenges and threats.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief