Who 'Won' Wednesday's Republican Debate?

Carly Fiorina stood out among a field of sweaty dudes, petty squabbling, and debates over autism.

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Sep 17 2015, 12:30am

Screengrab via CNN

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Campaigns for president are always essentially long TV shows, but the Republican 2016 campaign has resembled a giant crossover event, with an entire network's worth of protagonists thrown together with no regard to whether their disparate genres will jibe. Thus, we have HBO-esque antiheroes (Chris Christie, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul) jostling for screen time with the main characters of Christian made-for-TV movies (Mike Huckabee, Ben Carson), mean-spirited satires (Donald Trump), and USA Network shows about slick dudes in suits (Marco Rubio).

Unsurprisingly, mashing them all together on the same stage does not make for exactly compelling television, unless you enjoy shows about ten men and one woman passive-aggressively sniping at each other over hypotheticals involving Iraq. No one really "wins" debates like these—not the viewers, certainly, but not the candidates either. Most are simply trying to avoid making campaign-torpedoing gaffes while restating their talking points and trying to squeeze in a couple of good burns on Trump. Here's how each of the candidates did:

Donald Trump

What he needed to do: The reality television star had been dominating the field with his combination of boasting, vicious insults, nativism, and promising to enact bizarre and probably unfeasible policies, so... just keep it up, I guess?

What he did: Trump didn't dominate the proceedings the way he did in the first debate but he was, as usual, the center of attention. He got into squabbles with Jeb! Bush and Carly Fiorina over the times his companies have filed bankruptcies, refused to apologize to Bush for saying he had a "soft spot" for Mexicans because he was married to one, and, in the night's most bizarre moment, claimed that vaccines caused autism. (Amazingly, he wasn't challenged by Carson or Paul, both medical doctors.) According to the backwards-ass logic of the 2016 race, that embracing of anti-vaxxer conspiracy theories probably means he'll get a ten-point bump in the polls.

Ben Carson

What he needed to do: Portray himself as the more genuinely Christian, less bombastic choice for conservatives who loathe career politicians, while simultaneously convincing big-money donors he's a serious candidate.

What he did: Carson's speaking style is very, very mellow and he managed to look downright tired for most of the debate, and his soothing voice didn't help the impression that he was lethargic in comparison to other candidates. Oh, he also said that the Marines aren't ready to deploy.

Carly Fiorina

What she needed to do: Respond to Trump's attack on her looks, make the debate a two-person show, and stake a claim to the female vote as the only woman on stage.

What she did: She managed to come off as the most forceful, and one of the most prepared, figures onstage. While others seemed tired (like Carson) or sweaty (Scott Walker), Carly Fiorina remained steely as she advocated expanding America's already-massive military and refusing to talk to Russian President Vladimir Putin while escalating tensions between the US and Russia. Other applause lines included her attack on Hillary Clinton, her denouncing of Planned Parenthood, and her (likely pre-written line) that women "heard very clearly" what Trump said when he made snide comments about her face. A lot of what she said may horrify you, and you might note that some of it was flat-out wrong—but confidence and stage presence can go a long way in this environment. Oh, and NBA legend Phil Jackson likes her:

Marco Rubio

What he needed to do: Act like the grownup on stage, and hope that the Republican Party comes around to the idea that a young, attractive, Hispanic candidate from a swing state might be a viable presidential candidate.

What he did: Rubio didn't get as much time to talk as some of the other candidates, but when he did speak he demonstrated plenty of knowledge of foreign policy and enough gravitas to stay out of the squabbling that characterized this debate, especially early on. His views didn't stand out among the field, but his performance likely satisfied conservatives.

Jeb! Bush

What he needed to do: Definitively win a round against Trump while reassuring voters that he's got good people skills.

What he did: As expected, Bush got into it more with Trump than any other candidate, but managed to come off as less dignified than Fiorina in those exchanges, at one point doing a yes-you-did-no-I-didn't with Trump over the businessman's alleged attempt to legalize casino gambling in Florida. He also seemed stumbling at times, and delivered wandering answers about Kim Davis and his speaking Spanish. His admission that he smoked marijuana was obviously calculated but whether it was supposed to make him seem hip or worldly or contrite or honest was pretty unclear. He'd probably like to have those three hours back.

Ted Cruz

What he needed to do: Remind conservatives that he, not Trump, was supposed to be their hard-charging ideologue Tea Party insurgent.

What he did: He did his usual routine when comparing himself to other Republicans—crowing over his accomplishments as a lawyer before the Supreme Court and his record, bragging about his purity, and promising to shut down the federal government over funding Planned Parenthood and rip up the Iran deal if he gets elected. He's a smarmy nightmare for liberals as well as moderate conservatives, but his base will likely be nodding in approval.

Mike Huckabee

What he needed to do: Get the Evangelicals in the audience excited for his next book, TV show, or speaking tour.

What he did: Huckabee didn't talk much, as befits a candidate who no one thinks has a chance. When he did talk, he compared Kim Davis to Gitmo detainees.

Rand Paul

What he needed to do: Travel back in time to the short-lived era when his critiques of America's interventionist foreign policies made him seem like an exciting 2016 candidate.

What he did: As expected, he staked out positions as an isolationist when it came to foreign policy and a supporter of states rights when it came to the legalization of marijuana. People who back those stances will have cheered—but it's becoming apparent from the polls that there aren't enough of them in the GOP to get him anywhere near the nomination.

Scott Walker

What he needed to do: Reverse his sudden and nightmarish plunge in the polls and make people think of him as a serious candidate once again—possibly by making even more aggressively anti-union remarks, his bread and butter.

What he did: At one point when moderator Jake Tapper asked him a question, Walker looked noticeably weary and sweaty, to the point I worried he would fall down. That's not good. His unfamiliarity when it came to foreign policy didn't help matters much.

John Kasich

What he needed to do: Get more New Hampshire voters on his side, emphasize his work with GOP saint Ronald Reagan, then hope against hope that he can turn a strong finish in that primary into an argument that he should be an establishment favorite on par with Bush.

What he did: He decidedly separated himself from the field by pledging to work with America's allies—and even the Democrats!—and saying that he would abide by the Iran deal unless Iran broke the agreement first. That's not likely to make him popular among the base.

Chris Christie

What he needed to do: Become a completely different candidate, someone who people like.

What he did: Christie did seem forceful and maybe even likable this time out, cracking jokes about his status as a Republican governor in blue-state New Jersey and, in one early moment, admonishing Fiorina and Trump to "stop this childish back and forth!" If the GOP is looking for a new slogan, they may have found it.

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