Rubio, Kasich stand out in first GOP debate that was (mostly) dominated by Donald Trump… Trump vs. Fox News: Does he continue to defy political gravity? Or does he fall back down to earth?… On Jeb Bush and Scott Walker… Christie vs. Paul… Who didn’t stand out as much: Huckabee, Cruz, Carson… The undercard debate didn’t help any of the seven Republicans who participated, including Fiorina… Schumer comes out against Iran deal, but it looks like the White House is going to have the votes it needs… And yes, Hillary took a selfie with Kim Kardashian and Kanye West.
*** Rubio, Kasich stand out in first GOP debate: We’ve seen plenty of things in American politics over the years, but we’ve never seen a debate quite like that — especially for a first primary-season debate. And the reason was pretty simple: It was Donald Trump’s debate. Yet given all of the attention on Trump, two Republicans stood out to us: Marco Rubio and John Kasich. What Rubio did was steal moments (when talking about immigration, the Democratic Party) and get his message across — that he’s the generational contrast to Hillary Clinton. Kasich, meanwhile, certainly benefitted from the home-state crowd and used it to his advantage. If you’re Hillary Clinton, Rubio and Kasich standing out is probably not the result you wanted: Both are POTENTIALLY formidable general-election candidates, but they have difficult paths to winning the GOP nomination. That said, Democrats smelled blood on Rubio’s answer that he opposes abortion even in cases of rape and incest.
*** A little perspective on first debates: But don’t forget: Who was the winner of the first Democratic debate in 2007? From our recollection, it was John Edwards. And who didn’t quite look that great at that April 2007 showdown? Barack Obama. Translation: What’s more important is how these candidates improve over the course of the primary season — instead of how they performed in their first debate.
*** Trump vs. Fox News: Does he continue to defy political gravity? Or does he fall back down to earth? We’ll say this about Donald Trump: He didn’t change one iota in the debate, as NBC’s Perry Bacon writes. He was the only Republican who refused to rule out an independent presidential bid; he quipped, “Our leaders are stupid. Our politicians are stupid”; when Fox’s Megyn Kelly asked him about past demeaning comments he’s made about women, he replied, “Only [about] Rosie O’Donnell”; and he stood by his past opposition to the Iraq war and support for universal health care. Stay gold, Ponyboy. Stay gold. But make no mistake: Fox News and its moderators went after him from the get-go — almost as if Roger Ailes wanted to knock him out of the GOP race. (That’s the way to look at the VERY first question about whether the GOP candidates, and especially Trump, would launch a third-party bid.) Trump fired back at Fox. “I think my questions were somewhat unfair, but it’s fine. I really enjoyed it,” he told “Morning Joe” earlier this morning. “I’m not sure that Fox is fair… I’ve been set up before, and I think I handled it well.” Here’s the question we have going forward: How does conservative media (Fox, others) cover Trump in the next 72 hours. That could help determine if he continues to defy political gravity, or if he comes back down to earth.
*** On Jeb Bush and Scott Walker: We’ve covered Rubio, Kasich, and Trump — now it’s time to turn to Jeb Bush’s performance. He was hesitant and even looked a bit nervous at the tough questions that came his way. Jeb did get better as time went on, however. But Trump gave Jeb a big pass when he took the high road on their exchange over Trump’s tone. If Republican primary voters are going to demand that their eventual GOP nominee be a fighter (against Hillary, Obama, the Democratic Party), Jeb has some work to do on this front. As for Scott Walker, he had some nice answers for Iowa caucus-goers (on abortion, Planned Parenthood, his faith). But he seemed more of an afterthought than you’d expect from a co-front-runner.
*** Christie vs. Paul: The national-security exchange between Chris Christie and Rand Paul was easily the most heated — and personal — part of the debate. But it felt so familiar, since it seemed to be a sequel to the national-security fights between Rudy Giuliani and Ron Paul, Rand’s father. Because their exchange seemed SO familiar, it didn’t stand out as much in retrospect.
*** Who didn’t stand out: So we were wrong about Mike Huckabee maybe being the surprise performer — given his past presidential debating experience (and performances). The former Arkansas governor just didn’t stand out. Ted Cruz was Ted Cruz, but he didn’t have any moments. And then there’s Ben Carson. When maybe you’re best quip of the night in the first hour was “I wasn’t sure I was gonna get to talk again,” you had a bad night. By the way, here’s an NBC video on all of the different GOP zingers aimed at Hillary Clinton.
*** The undercard debate didn’t help any of the seven Republicans who participated, including Fiorina: Yes, Carly Fiorina performed best at the undercard debate. But make no mistake: The audience and format diminished everyone who was on that stage.
*** Schumer comes out against Iran deal, but it looks like the White House is going to have the votes it needs: The biggest news outside of the debate(s) last night was Sen. Chuck Schumer’s opposition to the Iran deal. His substance was scathing; he pretty much used Bibi Netanyahu’s rhetoric/rationale against the deal. But two points here. First, the announcement came smack dab in the middle of the GOP debate – almost as if Schumer wanted to bury the news and its impact. Two, he doesn’t sound like someone willing to campaign forcefully against the Iran deal. “While I will certainly share my view and try to persuade them that the vote to disapprove is the right one, in my experience with matters of conscience and great consequence like this, each member ultimately comes to their own conclusion,” he said, per the New York Times. Bottom line: President Obama and the White House need just 34 votes to prevent a veto override, and it’s pretty clear those votes are there – especially after folks like Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (Schumer’s NY colleague), Tim Kaine, and Angus King all now support the Iran deal. And here’s how to judge the extent of Schumer’s opposition: Does he stay off of weekend TV? That will be your big tell.
*** Yes, Hillary took a selfie with Kim Kardashian and Kanye West: Our final news about last night: Hillary Clinton took a selfie with Kim Kardashian and Kanye West at a California fundraiser.
*** On the trail: Jeb Bush holds a town hall in New Hampshire at 6:30 pm ET… Hillary Clinton hits fundraisers in La Jolla, CA and McAllen, TX… Mike Huckabee and Rand Paul campaign in South Carolina… Martin O’Malley stumps in Iowa… And Scott Walker makes a campaign stop in Cleveland at 11:30 am ET.
OFF THE RACES: About last night
Here’s how last night’s debate played immediately afterward:
NBC’s Alex Jaffe: “Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said Thursday night that it would be a ‘death wish’ for Donald Trump to go through with his threat to break from the Republican Party and run for the White House as a third-party candidate. ‘Well certainly I think going third-party’s a death wish, and so I don’t think that’s any secret at all,’ he told reporters after the Fox News GOP primary debate.
NBC’s Kailani Koenig: “Donald Trump supporters held a party in New Hampshire’s HQ in Manchester to cheer on their guy during tonight’s presidential debate. The atmosphere in the air going into this was pretty exuberant – people cheered loudly every time they saw Trump on the screen and even booed several other candidates as they were introduced (notably booing Bush, Huckabee, and Christie). They laughed throughout the entire debate and clapped at anything he said that could be interpreted as funny, but the overall energy didn’t really continue throughout the entire debate. Most of the people I talked with were very critical of Fox News and the questions that were asked of Trump, but they said it played into the narrative that he’s not supposed to be a chosen one and he’s fighting against the media and political establishment.”
NBC’s Monica Alba with the reaction from the Clinton campaign’s Jennifer Palmieri: “We think this was a really destructive night for the Republican Party. Hillary Clinton wasn’t on the stage but we felt that she was the clear winner… “[T]here was not one idea that was put forward by the Republican candidates on what they would do to help raise incomes for middle class families and then you saw that they doubled down on while not having any solutions on the economic side.”
How it played in key states:
The Des Moines Register: “Trump commands spotlight in GOP debate” MORE: “Donald Trump continued to play the “bad boy” in the GOP presidential race, egged on by Fox News moderators who pummeled him with hard-nosed questions intended to make sparks fly, GOP insiders and politics watchers in Iowa said Thursday night.”
The State: “Trump continues to dominate, and test the traditional limits of what’s acceptable in modern politics. This time, he angrily defended his use of terms such as fat pig and dog to describe women, drawing laughs from the GOP audience, but a cold stare from the Fox News moderator.”
The Union Leader: “Trump comes out swinging”
The Cleveland Plain Dealer: “John Kasich and Ben Carson fared best in debate, Rand Paul did worst, our undecided Republicans say”
The Miami Herald: “It was the presidential debate on steroids.” MORE: “Unlike Rubio, who’s in the middle of the pack in the polls, the pressure was on Bush, the former Florida governor who has raised more campaign cash than anyone else but at times stumbled on the campaign trail with careless answers. He wasn’t as crisp as Rubio, but he defended himself commendably on the issues where he’s weakest among GOP primary voters: immigration reform, Common Core educational standards and the Bush family dynasty.”
And how it played in national media:
Charlie Cook: “If this had been a general election debate, I think it would have been a tie between Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie tied for third place, but not an especially close third. But this was a Republican Primary debate, we’ll see whether Kasich and Rubio’s broad appeals will serve them well with a primary electorate that is looking for more red meat.”
The Washington Examiner: “Even rival camps thought Rubio shined.”
The New York Times: “Donald J. Trump was outrageous. He was demeaning. He was even somewhat menacing, warning a female moderator that he could turn on her at any moment.”
The Washington Post’s Dan Balz: “The first Republican debate of the 2016 campaign appeared to leave the nomination contest just as it was before. Donald Trump brought to Thursday’s debate the same sharp tongue and controversial style that has propelled him to the top of the polls in the Republican race. He was outspoken, bombastic and unapologetic. He did exactly what he has been doing up to now, and it hasn’t hurt him yet.”
The Wall Street Journal: “Donald Trump turned the first Republican presidential debate into a raucous brawl, refusing to say he would support the eventual nominee if he doesn’t win, then sparring with several of the other contenders and setting a contentious tone for the evening.”
From NBC’s Perry Bacon Jr.: “Trump accused one of the Fox News moderators of “living in the world of make-believe,” called reporters “dishonest,” described the Mexican government as “smarter” than its American counterparts in handling immigration issues and said many U.S. leaders are “stupid.” He also said he was open to a third-party run against the eventual GOP nominee if he didn’t like that person.”
Msnbc.com’s Benjy Sarlin, from the RedState Gathering: “Trump is really good at being Trump.”
FOXNews.com: “Throughout the debate, Donald Trump was the unrivaled lightning rod, but the prime-time showdown made clear he’s not the only fighter on the stage – or in the race.”
POLITICO: “Trump’s act is wearing thin – especially with women”
Trump tweets: “Megyn Kelly ‘really bombed tonight’ ”
From one of us(!): “Carly Fiorina Wins Buzz After ‘Happy Hour’ Debate”
CONGRESS: Schumer opposes Iran deal
The most important news from last night? From the New York Times: “Senator Chuck Schumer, the most influential Jewish voice in Congress, said Thursday night that he would oppose President Obama’s deal to limit Iran’s nuclear program… With his decision, he paves the way for other Democrats on the fence to join Republicans in showing their disapproval.”
Here’s Schumer’s full statement.
And Rep. Eliot Engel, who’s also opposing the deal: “The answers I’ve received simply don’t convince me that this deal will keep a nuclear weapon out of Iran’s hands, and may in fact strengthen Iran’s position as a destabilizing and destructive influence across the Middle East.”
The AP writes that John Kerry “profoundly disagrees” with the two lawmakers. “Speaking in the Vietnamese capital, Kerry said the facts do not bear out the arguments made by the Senate’s No. 3 Democrat Chuck Schumer, and the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Eliot Engel. He said he respects the right of lawmakers to make their own decisions about the merits of the deal, but said rejection does not offer any alternative than a drumbeat to conflict.”
From Roll Call: ” Did Sen. Charles E. Schumer just open himself up to a serious challenge to lead Senate Democrats in 2017? Top allies of the president say yes — and a major liberal advocacy group now wants him gone.”
NBC’s Frank Thorp reports that another Democratic senator supports the Iran deal – Tammy Baldwin (D-WI).
—NBC News’ Mark Murray, and Carrie Dann contributed to this report.