Post-CNN Debate Thoughts

by Stuart Rothenberg September 18, 2015 · 10:12 AM EDT

Given there are still four and one-half months until the Iowa caucuses, why would any Iowa Republican make a final decision right now about which candidate he or she will support?

Yet that didn’t stop CNN from treating Wednesday night’s GOP debate at the Reagan Library as the Super Bowl, with a countdown clock and the suffocating self-promotion that we have all come to expect these days.

For too many in the media, today — each day — is always the most important day in the history of the universe. Tomorrow? Nobody cares about tomorrow, until tomorrow arrives, at which point it becomes the most important day in the history of the universe. And that day is particularly important if it’s your network’s turn to cover the day.

CNN spent much of the debate baiting each candidate to attack his or her colleagues, hoping to create what professional wrestling used to call a royal rumble — when all of the contenders enter the ring and beat up on each other until a single hopeful has survived.

Of course, all of that is scripted in professional wrestling, so CNN repeatedly had to try to create verbal fisticuffs to make sure that the combatants would leave enough blood on the ground to make things interesting.

Donald Trump didn’t seem at the top of his game, but that may not matter to those Republicans who loved his comments about immigration and who felt that the seemingly coordinated attacks on him were unfair.

Carly Fiorina again showed that she is smart, polished and quick. Her answers were short when they needed to be and long when they needed to be. She got personal sometimes and offered facts and details other times. Clearly, her performance at the Fox News kids table debate was not an accident.

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio had another noteworthy performance. He, too, is articulate and sharp, and he may have helped himself over the long run.

Rand Paul continues to articulate an agenda that simply doesn’t resonate with traditional GOP primary voters and caucus attendees. Given that the Kentucky senator wants to run for re-election if he is not his party’s presidential nominee, he probably needs to see a surge in near-term support to justify staying in the race through the end of the year.

The three candidates who got the least amount of air time, according to a tally by NPR — Scott Walker, Mike Huckabee and John R. Kasich — have plenty to complain about. When you aren’t on camera, you can’t expect to score points.

Jeb Bush started slow but rounded into form later in the debate, if anyone was still watching. But his biggest event this week may not have been the debate, but his SuperPAC going on the air in the two early states. This isn’t likely to be merely a short media blitz. It’s the start of the Bush media carpet-bombing effort, which is likely to continue without pause.

We have been waiting to see whether Bush’s assets (financial and others) can actually move the needle for him, or whether Republican voters are so cynical about ads, and so distrustful of the former Florida governor, that his dollars, and his messaging, don’t get the traction that his strategists are hoping for.

Instant analysis of debates can be fun, but the GOP nomination still involves a long, hard haul for all of the contenders. Republican voters aren’t close to coalescing around a couple of candidates, and they probably won’t do so for months.