First debate shakes up 2016 Republican field

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Story highlights

  • Two hopefuls with previously low numbers -- Ohio Gov. John Kasich and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina -- are suddenly center stage
  • The debate may have chipped away at voters' views of some candidates

Washington (CNN)Polls confirmed this week what political junkies already knew: The first Republican presidential primary debate shuffled the GOP field, lifting some little known hopefuls, swatting down favorites and altering the state of the race for everyone.

Two hopefuls with previously low numbers -- Ohio Gov. John Kasich and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina -- are suddenly center stage, reaping the benefits of strong debate performances, while Iowa darling Scott Walker fell to third place, bested by Donald Trump and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson.
    The candidate who went hardest after Trump -- Texas Gov. Rick Perry -- is hanging on by a thread, amid reports he had to stop paying staff. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, once a favorite of libertarians and younger voters who was near the top of polls earlier in the year, has now resorted to taking shots at Trump.
    And the strategy of playing it safe doesn't immediately seem to be paying off for Walker and establishment favorite Jeb Bush, whose performances didn't resonate as much.
    Craig Robinson, editor of The Iowa Republican website and a veteran Iowa operative, said he is waiting to see if the shakeup sticks or not.
    "I do think there is some cause for concern if you are someone like Walker or Bush," Robinson said. "Both are well known, and have been labeled front-runners in the race prior to the debate."
    The debate, he said, may have chipped away at voters' views of some candidates.
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    "In the minds of voters, Walker is supposed to be this conservative reformer who will stand firm on difficult issues. That didn't come across in the debate at all," he said. "And Bush is supposed to be the clear front-runner and commanding figure in a huge field of candidates. He was overshadowed by everyone he shared the stage with, and there is not one memorable moment from him in the entire debate."
    In the absence of a Perry "oops" moment, which came to define the 2012 debates, clean shots by Fiorina, warm stories from Kasich and clear messaging and a personal narrative for Florida Sen. Marco Rubio shined through.
    Kasich surged to third place in New Hampshire -- running neck-and-neck with Bush, who is leaning heavily on a win there. Fiorina broke out of the back of the pack, reaching the middle tier of contenders, and Rubio, who had been slipping in polls, was back to looking like a possible front-runner.
    Bush, meanwhile, stumbled in delivering his lines and was pressed to defend national Common Core education standards -- a program that strikes a raw nerve among conservatives, who have dubbed it "Obamacore."
    One of the most surprising drops was by Walker, who fell from his perch in Iowa. His supporters forecasted concerns last week when, just a few days before the debate, they announced a major $7 million ad campaign in Iowa, starting in September.
    Walker said the polls reflect deep voter frustrations, but he is confident Republican voters will return to the fold by "the time the first votes are cast."
    "I think the polls that you see, not just one, but a number of the candidates who are moving up are people who have not held political office," Walker said Thursday during a campaign swing through Illinois. "Why? Because that's a direct frustration with the fact that they feel, even in Washington, the Republicans haven't been able to get the job done. And so they're willing to express their frustration in these polls."
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    For his part, Trump continues to dominate, despite a seemingly endless string of gaffes, staff scandals and wild comments that would have easily derailed most other campaigns.
    During the debate, he refused to rule out a third-party run if he doesn't win the Republican nomination -- a prospect which could hand the White House to the Democrats. He also snapped back at Fox moderator Megyn Kelly when asked about his view of women, and later escalated the feud when he seemed to insinuate she was menstruating when peppering him on stage.
    But polls that came out in the wake of the Kelly comments showed Trump holding his national lead and taking over Iowa.
    The questions now are whether that dynamic will hold or whether this is just a post-debate blip, and what will the candidates do to shine in the next debate, which will be hosted by CNN on Sept. 16.