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10 August 2015, Gateway House

Trump and Hillary dominate the debate

In the first Republican debate of the the 2016 elections Donald Trump stood out as the biggest winner. However, the lack of any outstanding Republican candidate means Democrat Hillary is the real winner

Director, Gateway House

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The first major televised Republican Presidential debate of the 2016 elections took place in Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena on August 6.

Fox news invited the declared Republican candidates of 2016, of which they were too many (17), which forced the debate to be staged in two tiers.

The candidates were selected according to their popularity—calculated based on their average ratings of the last five major national polls. The top 10 included Donald Trump who topped the poll at nearly 23%, Jeb Bush at 13%, and John Kasich at 2.8% who made the cutoff as the 10th candidate at the prime time debate. The other seven who did not make the cut included Bobby Jindal and the lone women candidate Carly Fiorina, who were relegated to an early face off four hours before the top-tier debate.

Donald Trump dominated the prime time debate mostly by being ‘himself— loud, boorish and uncompromising. At the onset, he refused to pledge his allegiance to the Republican candidacy, specifying that if he was not nominated he was prepared to run as an independent. He made outrageous and politically incorrect remarks to the point of picking a fight with the only female moderator, Megyn Kelly. On being grilled by her about his serial misogynistic comments about women, who constitute 53% of the American electorate, Trump admonished her, saying that he had been very nice to her, but could choose not to be based on the way she had treated him.

Jeb Bush, the preferred candidate of the Republican establishment was uninspiring as he conveyed the establishment message that Republicans must focus on trying to occupy the White house instead of quarreling amongst themselves.

One of the predictable stars was Marco Rubio, who played up his immigrant background and laid out an education reform programme. However, the unexpected charmer of the night was Ohio Governor, John Kasich.  Surprising as it may be, he got high marks for sounding like a compassionate conservative, calling for love and respect for all marginalized communities, even the gay community, saying he would accept the Supreme Court verdict on same-sex marriages— a refreshing contrast to the arrogant, dismissive Trump.

Candidates Pre-debate  (Last week) Post-Debate (now) Change Best in debate Job
Donald Trump 22 23 1 18
Jeb Bush 10 7 -3 2
Scott Walker 10 7 -3 3
Ben Carson 8 11 3 8
Marco Rubio 8 8 0 13
Ted Cruz 6 13 7 12
Rand Paul 6 5 -1 3

Source : NBC News Online Survey with numbers in percentage terms

On the foreign policy front, it was noteworthy that the country most frequently referred to was Iran. All the presidential hopefuls asserted that they would reject the P5+1 nuclear deal if they become President.  Israel, Syria, and the Islamic State also received mentions, while animosities against China and Russia and the Ukrainian crises received minimal expression. India did not figure in the debate at all. Ultimately, there was no disagreement amongst the candidates that Obama had negotiated the worst possible deal with Iran and had failed utterly to contain ISIS because of his chicken-heartedness on the bombing of Syria in 2013.

Of interest to Indian Americans was the geeky aggressive posturing of current governor of Louisiana Bobby Jindal. At a low popularity rating of 1.4% (compared to Trump’s 23 %), he stands no chance of winning the republican nomination.  As twice elected Governor of Louisiana, he claimed credit for his slash and burn record of culling out 30,000 state jobs. He also claimed that his state was a top ten state for private sector job creation, and hailed his own policies on school choice and pro-life. All this despite his approval rating in Louisiana diminishing to an all time low of  32% in May of 2015, a drop of nearly 22 % from last December.

The extent to which Hillary dominates the Republican mind space was illustrated by the question posed to candidates in the first debate – to define her in two words. The answer ranged from ‘untrustworthy’ and ‘Socialist’ to the innuendo heavy ‘Good at email’, drawing attention to her use of a private email ID during her time as Secretary of State.

Ultimately, this is just a prelude. There is a packed presidential debate season to look forward to, with 10 more Republican primary debates and six Democratic primary debates for the five declared Democrat candidates, including Hilary.

Neelam Deo is Co-founder and Director, Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations; She has been the Indian Ambassador to Denmark and Ivory Coast; and former Consul General in New York.

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