ATLANTA – Hundreds of conservative activists watched the Republican primary debates here in Atlanta at the RedState Gathering, a summit set to feature 10 of the presidential candidates over the next two days. Msnbc joined them for what turned out to be a raucous, riotous, and spectacularly memorable GOP face-off. Here’s what we took away:
1. Trump is really good at being Trump. At the RedState watch party in Atlanta, the hosts set the stage for the debate with a panel discussion in which they criticized, mocked, and generally sneered at real estate mogul and GOP front-runner Donald Trump for 45 minutes. They seemed to be working under the assumption that their audience of conservative activists was in on the joke. As the first cheers erupted when Trump took the stage, it was clear they were not.
The crowd was captivated by his every move – there were wild hoots and shouts as he threatened to run as an independent if he didn’t like the nominee, mocked Rosie O’Donnell’s weight, and outright pandemonium broke out when he declared: “The big problem this country has is being politically correct.”
At one point in the second hour, a woman sitting near this reporter shrieked like it was the Beatles at Shea Stadium while Trump talked. It was hard to find a face in the crowd that wasn’t smiling as they waited to see what he would do next.
“I’m fascinated by Trump,” Joann Balfour, an activist from Oklahoma City, told msnbc afterwards.
“He brings out in bold colors what other people won’t talk about,” Ben Jackson, a Georgia businessman, gushed.
RNC Chairman Reince Priebus told reporters in Cleveland that a Trump indie run would be a “death wish.” But Trump knows as long as he holds it over the GOP’s head, the establishment has to treat him with caution and hope he flames out on his own.
In fact, there were some signs of vulnerabilities on Thursday. The moderators were ruthless in picking at Trump's weakest spots, most notably his long trail of ties to Democrats and his assortment of liberal positions. There were a handful of boos in Atlanta when Trump defended his support for single-payer health care, and as the energy leveled off in the second hour, his zingers seemed to lose some punch. The audience seemed more confused than excited while he bragged about donating money to politicians from both sides to extract concessions.
It’s not hard to see where the Trump train might go off the tracks.
2. The RNC hasn’t fixed the debates. The debates were a popular whipping boy after former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney lost to President Obama in 2012 – GOP leaders blamed them for encouraging intraparty sniping, trapping candidates in dangerous general election positions, and they denounced non-conservative news outlets for embarrassing candidates with esoteric wedge issues. For 2016, the RNC unveiled new rules designed to strongly reduce the number of sanctioned debates, which began in May last time around.
As it turned out, holding fewer debates meant there were even more pent up feuds, wedges, and tough questions waiting to explode at once. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul unleashed a howler at Donald Trump early in the night, saying he “buys and sells politicians of all stripes,” then mixed it up over NSA data collection with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who accused Paul of “blowing hot air.”
“I don’t trust president Obama with our records, I know you gave him a big hug and if you want to give him a big hug again go right ahead,” Paul said.
This time the host was Fox News, the GOP’s go-to favorite outlet, but the moderators were relentless in picking at divides between the candidates and pinning them down on uncomfortable issues. In the first debate, low-polling candidates were asked whether they would investigate mosques for terrorism. One of the questioners blithely asked the candidates what they would do about "illegals," a phrase that many immigrant advocacy groups consider offensive, and Trump pledged to "keep the illegals out" in the main debate. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio was pressed to explain his position on abortion and denied that he supported rape and incest exceptions -- a sound bite that could haunt him in a general election if he wins.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee talked up nullifying court decisions, saying “the Supreme Court is not the Supreme Being.” Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, appearing in the undercard debate, threatened to sic “the Department of Justice and the IRS and everyone else we can send from the federal government” on Planned Parenthood – an odd threat that undermined his complaints about the IRS targeting conservative groups in his closing remarks.
If the fear in 2012 was candidates setting their hair on fire to rise in the polls, nothing in Thursday’s debate indicated the issue had gone away.
3. It’s hard to stand out. Rubio, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, and Ohio Gov. John Kasich all delivered solid performances, but given Trump’s gravity field it will be interesting to see whether anyone can get a serious boost. Trump spoke for 10.5 minutes, easily more than anyone else – the next closest with two minutes less was Bush, and no one else got much more than 6.5 minutes by NBC News’ informal count.
Kasich made the most of his brief time to showcase his blue-collar roots and fended off a tough question on why he accepted Obamacare funding to expand Medicaid.
“You know, America’s a miracle country and we have to restore the sense that the miracle will apply to you,” Kasich said at one point.
Walker got in the best line of the night, targeting Hillary Clinton and her use of a private e-mail sever while responding to a question about foreign cyber-attacks.
“The Russian and Chinese government probably know more about Hillary’s email server than do the members of the U.S. Congress,” he said.
Bush was mostly on the defensive – he was asked about his support for Common Core (he said states should have control over education standards), his remark that illegal immigration was an “act of love” (he defended it), and his earlier stumbles over whether the Iraq War should have been waged (he said “it was a mistake” in hindsight). The barrage kept him from ever taking off, but he didn’t get pinned down on any one issue either.
One thing is clear: Bush is going to face a tough audience when he comes to Atlanta on Saturday. The crowd booed him as he took the stage, hissed at him as he answered questions, and some members even screamed obscenities during his Iraq answer.
4. The kids table is no fun. Everyone in the main debate won big by not being in the second-tier debate.
The first round of questions was essentially the same for every candidate: “Why are you even running?” Jindal was asked about his low approval ratings in Louisiana, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum was asked whether his “moment passed,” and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina was asked how she could compare herself to Margaret Thatcher given her weak poll standings. Due to reported security concerns, there was almost no audience allowed in for the “kids table” debate, which led to applause lines with no applause, laugh lines with no laughter, and an audible echo as candidates spoke in the giant arena.
The one exception: Fiorina earned some strong buzz for her performance, which was poised, polished, and focused on tearing down Hillary Clinton. She also got in the best dig at Trump of the night, bringing up a Washington Post report that he had spoken to Bill Clinton shortly before running.
“I didn’t get a phone call from Bill Clinton before I jumped in the race,” she said. “Any of you get a phone call from Bill Clinton?”
As RedState attendees gathered for the prime-time watch party, Fiorina was topic No. 1, with a several audience members telling msnbc they wanted to learn more about her. But she’s garnered similar reactions from conservative audiences at events in New Hampshire and Iowa for months now – with no bump in the polls to show for it. Will that change now? Stay tuned.