GOP Debate Sorts the Fighters From the Statesmen
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Distinction raises question about the electorate: Do voters want a candidate who channels their anger, or one who acknowledges it yet moves beyond it?
The initial Republican debate Thursday night provided entertainment aplenty, but also this bit of enlightenment: It divided the GOP field into two distinct camps, the fighters and the statesmen.
It says something about the national mood of 2016 that it isn’t entirely clear which is the better place to land.
Donald Trump is, of course, the leader of the fighters’ camp, as he showed again on the debate stage. Any expectation that a more sedate Mr. Trump would appear was blown away within seconds, when he opened the official Republican campaign season by threatening to run as an independent if he doesn’t get the nomination.
But it wasn’t only Mr. Trump. Sen. Rand Paul and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie also signed up for the fight card, as did former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee in his own, more folksy way.
While they were engaged in a kind of debate demolition derby, there was another group that seemed more interested in a calmer drive down the political parkway. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Sen. Marco Rubio, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Ohio Gov. John Kasich leaned more toward a policy discussion in the traditional mode. More than that, they appeared to think that the correct image to project in a presidential debate was the statesmanlike one, even if that might leave them appearing understated and even plodding at times compared with the crashing sounds around them.
This distinction reflects a deeper philosophical divide within the field. It also raises a broad question about the mood of the electorate—and the Republican primary electorate in particular—as the 2016 campaign gets serious: Are voters looking for a candidate who channels their anger, or one who acknowledges it, yet moves beyond it as the contest matures?
The question lingered Friday as GOP candidates moved on from the debate in Cleveland, with all sides agreeing it was a significant milestone in the nascent campaign. Nielsen figures indicated the prime-time event on Fox News drew a whopping 24 million viewers, making it the most-watched primary debate ever.
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