CLEVELAND – Donald Trump made for a good show, but Ohio Republicans had their eyes turned on other candidates.
“I like some of the thing he says, but he’s too arrogant,” Robyn Studer told msnbc of the tycoon-turned-candidate, halfway through the debate at a watch party sponsored by the American Conservatives Union.
Amid a media and polling frenzy over Trump’s candidacy, Ohio Republicans watched the first presidential debate with a discerning eye and an open mind towards all the other candidates. A win in the Buckeye State is crucial for Republican presidential contenders and activists at the party voiced some of their strongest support for non-Trump candidates.
Studer’s got her eye on Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, she said; the Florida senator dodged much of the fray on stage, and sounded presidential and passionate about his policy proposals.
“The reason Donald Trump is soaring is he’s saying all the things we’re too afraid to say,” Ohio Republican Julie Komorowski told msnbc after the debate, slamming entitlements at length; but she admitted Trump lacks “empathy” and said she was most impressed by Ohio Gov. Kasich.
The Ohio governor spoke confidently about a wide variety of issues, tackling conservative liabilities like the Medicaid expansion confidently, earning cheers from the crowd.
Meanwhile, Trump boasted his wealth and battled other candidates during the debate, frustrating some.
"It’s 'all about himself! He says he wants to do all these things for America, but every fourth word is 'I, I, I, I.' It should be 'we the people,' not 'I,'” Sarah Lipcak told msnbc, adding that Dr. Ben Carson and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz had impressed her the most.
Most attendees said they liked Trump -- even if they weren't sure he'd make it all the way to the White House.
"People are tired of the same old politicians, the same old policies," Robert Fenbers said.
While the prime-time debate seemed to leave voters divided, the 5 p.m. “happy hour” debate had a clear winner: Carly Fiorina.
Despite national polling that mirrors candidates like former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore (who was greeted by the watch party with a shouted “who?”) the former Hewlett Packard CEO emerged as a fan favorite.
“We have a winner and it’s Carly Fiorina,” Townhall.com’s Guy Benson told the crowd during a panel discussion after the first debate. Fiorina stood out as strong, articulate, and prepared. Her quips delighted the crowd just as much as her policy proposals.
“I didn’t get a phone call from Bill Clinton before I jumped in the race, did any of you?” she coyly asked the other candidates, referring to the news that the former president had phoned Trump ahead of his presidential announcement. She approached Trump’s dominance in national polls with a sort of bemused respect, getting in a well-received zing without detracting from his supporters.
Fiorina’s policy answers – virtually unchanged from recent interviews – found fertile ground, too.
“On day one in the Oval Office, I would make two phone calls. The first one would be to my good friend, Bibi Netanyahu, to reassure him we will stand with the State of Israel,” she declared. “The second will be to the supreme leader of Iran. He might not take my phone call, but he would get the message, and the message is this: Until you open every nuclear and every military facility to full, open, anytime/anywhere, for real, inspections, we are going to make it as difficult as possible for you to move money around the global financial system.”
Her momentum was obvious to the other candidates; at one point, former Gov. Rick Perry even suggested her as a possible Secretary of State. “I would rather have Carly Fiorina over there doing our negotiations than John Kerry,” he said, earning some of his loudest cheers of the evening.