Is GOP reality show over?

Story highlights

  • CNN commentators weigh in on winners and losers in Fox Business debate
  • No clear winner, but Marco Rubio and Carly Fiorina had good nights, they write

(CNN)CNN Opinion asked a range of contributors for their take on the Fox Business debate of Democratic presidential candidates. Who were the winners and losers? The opinions expressed in these commentaries are solely those of the authors.

S.E. Cupp: Let them debate each other

S.E. Cupp-Profile-Image
The best moments of this debate were when the candidates actually debated each other. Whether it was Rand Paul and Donald Trump, Carly Fiorina and Marco Rubio all debating the role of the United States in combating ISIS, or John Kasich and Ted Cruz on Dodd-Frank, Tuesday night provided voters with real contrast. We need to construct debates where the moderators don't silo the candidates off from one another so that they're delivering monologues, but are allowed to have a conversation about important issues where they disagree.
    Frontrunner Ben Carson gave an unimpressive performance. Where Rubio, Fiorina and others were substantive, Carson was vague and unsure. 
    Trump's attack against Fiorina for interrupting deserved its boos. He may be good at counter-punching, but not when it comes to Fiorina -- or Carson -- yet.
    Jeb Bush actually had a decent night, perhaps proving that when he swings against President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton he's much more effective than when he attempts it against his Republican opponents. 
    Rubio and Fiorina had another great debate. They were polished and on point. The loser of the night was John Kasich, who was annoyingly pushy, and when he was allowed to interject, didn't do much with the opportunity.
    S.E. Cupp is the author of "Losing Our Religion: The Liberal Media's Attack on Christianity," co-author of "Why You're Wrong About the Right" and a columnist at the New York Daily News.

    Errol Louis: Open season on Trump?

    Errol Louis
    The fourth Republican debate featured a striking set of attacks on frontrunner Donald Trump -- not just engaging him on economic and foreign policy, but ridiculing the logic and plausibility of his plans.
    Ohio Gov. John Kasich went straight at Trump's stated intention to find and deport all of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country. "It's a silly argument. It's not an adult argument," he said. Ex-Gov. Jeb Bush jumped in, pointing out that Trump's strident anti-immigrant rhetoric will ultimately hurt Republicans come Election Day next year. "They're doing high fives in the Clinton campaign right now when they hear this," said Bush.
    On foreign policy, several candidates attacked Trump's plan to take a tougher line with Russian leader Vladimir Putin, who Trump said appeared on "60 Minutes" the same night he did ("We were stablemates...and that went pretty well").
    "Donald is wrong on this. He is absolutely wrong on this," said Bush. "That's like a board game...That's not how the real world works." Former business executive Carly Fiorina not only disagreed with Trump but pointedly mentioned that she has met in private with Putin, not in a television waiting room.
    Remarkably, Trump mostly refrained from issuing his well-known counterattacks, insults and put-downs.
    The complaints signal a new attitude among candidates who have seen Trump's stalled approval numbers and sky-high negative numbers in the polls. The path to victory for candidates with years of government experience -- especially Bush, Gov. John Kasich, Sen. Marco Rubio and Sen. Ted Cruz -- is to steer voters away from vague boasts and ideas lacking in specifics.
    Errol Louis is the host of "Inside City Hall," a nightly political show on NY1, a New York all-news channel.

    Jeff Yang: Big dogs play to base

    Jeff Yang
    Tuesday night's Fox Business-hosted Republican debate offered up nothing that we haven't already seen in prior tilts: Egregious and easily fact-checkable misstatements, over-the-top anti-Obama hyperbole, vague guarantees of magical American transformation and raw red meat tossed in steaming lumps to all the usual right-wing interest groups: border-blockers, flat-taxers, defense hawks and the pro-Israel lobby.
    The most rational appearing person on stage, John Kasich, looked increasingly like he didn't belong there, even referring to himself as a party crasher, as he made the vital mistakes (for today's GOP) of dismissing mass deportation, supporting the Trans-Pacific Partnership and saying one begrudgingly nice thing about President Obama.
    The debate's big dogs, meanwhile, reinforced the support of their bases -- evangelicals for Ben Carson, nativists for Trump -- while doing nothing to make themselves any more appealing to voters beyond the primary. (Trump's entire case for election is "I'll make America great again." How? "I'm rich.")
    As for the once and never frontrunner Jeb Bush, Tuesday evening should mark the end of his campaign. Listless, tongue-tied and peevish, Bush ended the debate by making what seemed to be a fervent pitch to be chosen as secretary of Veterans Affairs. Just as well: He'll certainly never be elected president.
    Jeff Yang is a columnist for the Wall Street Journal Online and contributes frequently to radio shows, including Public Radio International's "The Takeaway" and WNYC's "The Brian Lehrer Show."

    Buck Sexton: Cruz showed mastery of issues

Buck Sexton
    There was no single candidate who was the standout victor in the Fox Business GOP debate, but there was a top tier of performers: Cruz, Rubio, Fiorina.
    Cruz separated himself from the other candidates with a straightforward strategy: Answer the question asked, clearly and precisely. Instead of a long preamble, sprinkled with résumé non sequiturs and campaign talking points, Cruz got right into the meat of the matter and showed a mastery of subjects ranging from bank bailouts to tax policy. He might have gained some supporters; he certainly didn't lose any.
    Rubio was in his usual slick form, fluid on policy and charismatic with personal anecdotes. There is a fine line, however, between going to one's strengths and going to the well too often. Rubio is starting to sound less like a standard-bearer of the American Dream and more like a commission-based salesman for it. Not every debate answer should start with a variation of "I'm the son of immigrants, my father was a bartender..."
    Carly Fiorina needed a big night; she did well, but probably not well enough to matter. Arguably the most knowledgeable candidate on the stage on economic matters (sorry, Trump fans), Fiorina's fiscal clarion call was for zero-based budgeting which, while sensible reform, isn't the sort of thing that gets a crowd fired up, or that they remember.
    Honorable mention goes to Rand Paul, who gets the award for most improved. It won't be enough to matter in the polls, but if his purpose is now to be an "ideas candidate" for libertarianism, he may have finally left a mark by going after defense spending and interventionism in the Middle East.
    Carson and Trump showed up, were fine, not much else to say. No major flubs, no grand slams either. They will stay at the top of the GOP pack, for now.
    Jeb Bush was mostly defensive and irascible. Instead of winning converts, he seems intent on scolding America into liking him. At various points during the night, it felt like maybe he realized this whole being president situation isn't going to work out for him.
    And one last thing: we learned that nothing can make you long for Chris Christie quite like a belligerent John Kasich.
    Buck Sexton is a political commentator for CNN and host of "The Buck Sexton Show" on The Blaze. He was previously a CIA counterterrorism analyst.

    Dean Obeidallah: Reality show phase over

    Dean Obeidallah-Profile-Image
    The reality show phase of the GOP presidential race may have ended tonight. Don't get me wrong, there were reality show-esque moments such as when Donald Trump channeled the "Real Housewives" by lashing out at Carly Fiorina with the remark, "Why does she keep interrupting people?" But for the most part, the debate focused on policies, not the moderators nor lashing out at the media like the last debate on CNBC. 
    Ohio Gov. John Kasich was truly impressive in his command of the issues and trying to introduce reality, such as calling out Trump's unrealistic plan to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants. Kasich also was able to avoid just serving up talking points -- in contrast to Carly Fiorina and Ted Cruz, who seemed to give stump speeches to answer any question.
    Ben Carson truly seemed lost when it came to foreign policy questions, as if he didn't know that would be on the test. And Carson's answer on whether he would break up big banks was truly a WTF moment.
    On the flip side, this may have been Jeb Bush's best debate. Marco Rubio was again impressive and Trump was competent. Will this matter much in the polls? Maybe not now, but I bet many in the establishment wing of the GOP will start gravitating toward Rubio unless they are moved by Kasich's argument that he's better suited to be president than a one-term U.S. senator.
    Dean Obeidallah, a former attorney, is the host of SiriusXM's weekly program "The Dean Obeidallah Show." He is a columnist for The Daily Beast and editor of the politics blog The Dean's Report. He's also the co-director of the documentary "The Muslims Are Coming!" Follow him on Twitter: @TheDeansreport.

    Maria Cardona: Fiorina shows V.P. potential

    Maria Cardona
    Tonight's Republican debate didn't do anything to change the dynamic of the GOP race. Surprisingly, Jeb Bush seemed alive, but his deliveries were still stuttering and unnatural. While this was probably one of his best debates, it seems GOP voters have already made their decision -- they're done with him.
    Ben Carson seemed to fade again into the background. But this effect didn't seem to hurt him at the last debate, it may not this time either: He didn't shine, but he didn't make any obvious mistakes. He is very well-liked and will continue, with Trump, to stay atop the polls.
    Trump had flashes of the bravado persona that Republican voters have fallen in love with. While Sen. Rand Paul got the better of him during the Trans-Pacific Partnership discussion -- when Paul pointed out that China was not part of the TPP -- it won't make a dent in Trump's popularity. And sadly for Paul, who had his best debate yet, it won't make a difference in his support, either. He will continue to lag and may have to look for an exit soon.
    Carly Fiorina looked strong, but she wasn't able to build on the advantage she gained during her last spectacular debate. She will make a good vice presidential option.
    Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz had very good nights once again. They were strong, pointed and clear. It was disappointing however, that Rubio wasn't asked where he stood on deportation of the 11 million undocumented immigrants during the exchange that occurred between Trump and Kasich on that issue. Rubio and Cruz's numbers will probably go up in the polls, but neither is likely to best Carson or Trump out of this one debate.
    The biggest winners were the debate moderators and the Fox Business Channel. Kudos to them for keeping the debate to the issues, for imposing discipline and for going into details on the economy, taxes, immigration and foreign policy.
    Unfortunately, every GOP candidate still stuck to his and her evidence-free stances on minimum wage, immigration reform, health care, tax policy, job creation and focused on talking down the resilience of our economy, taking away health security from 17 million Americans by repealing Obamacare and pushing policies that would keep working Americans' and middle class families' wages down, while cutting taxes for the rich.
    If this is how the Republican candidate will run in a general election, we can all welcome a third Democratic president to the White House in January of 2017.
    Maria Cardona is a political commentator for CNN, a Democratic strategist and principal at the Dewey Square Group. She is a former senior adviser to Hillary Clinton and was communications director for the Democratic National Committee. She also is a former communications director of the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

    Raul Reyes: No clear winner

    Raul Reyes
    Live from Milwaukee, it's the fourth GOP debate!
    That probably sounds as interesting as tonight's debate proved to be. Coming into the GOP debate, there were questions with answers that only true political junkies were dying to know. Would Donald Trump go after new frontrunner Ben Carson? Would Marco Rubio turn in another strong performance? Would the Fox Business moderators learn from the poor reviews of their CNBC counterparts and keep control of the debate?
    As it turned out, this debate was more substantive, and yet it is hard to say who was the clear winner and loser.
    Tuesday night, no one had any especially memorable gaffes, although Ted Cruz did evoke former Texas Gov. Rick Perry at one point. Talking about his spending plan, Cruz attempted to rattle off the five government agencies he would eliminate. But apparently he forgot one, because he named the Department of Commerce twice. While this was reminiscent of Perry's infamous 2011 debate moment, at least Cruz avoided Perry's embarrassment by not saying "Oops!"
    The winner of the debate was Marco Rubio. He very luckily avoided being questioned by the moderators on his past support for immigration reform, which remains a third rail among much of the Republican primary base. He was not asked about his commitment to ending President Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which is overwhelmingly popular with Latinos, or the recent Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling against President Obama's executive action on immigration. Similarly, while Rubio invokes his family history at every debate, he has yet to be questioned about the fact that his family -- like other Cuban immigrants -- enjoyed special privileges not afforded to those from other countries.
    For now, this should allow Rubio to continue to walk the fine line between appealing to GOP voters and winning Hispanic support -- at least until he is more forcefully called out for his actual (shifting) positions. Although Rubio's answers often came across as glib and somewhat rehearsed, he will probably continue his rise in the polls.
    Tonight's loser was Jeb Bush. He turned in his strongest debate performance so far, but that was not enough. Bush needed a home run, and he did not hit the ball out of the park. Consider that it is an ominous sign for "Jeb!" that Politico recently reported that the top Google search related to him was the question, "Is Jeb Bush still running for President?" Or that he recently rebooted his campaign under the much-ridiculed slogan, "Jeb can fix it."
    While Bush sounded passionate defending immigrants and stating his support for legalization for the undocumented, at other times he seemed to fade into the background. On a stage full of showboaters, the self-described "introvert" had a hard time standing out.
    On a side note, if Donald Trump remains near the top of this field, things can only get worse for the Republican brand. Trump's call for mass deportation of the undocumented will continue to drive Hispanics away from the party (To his credit, Bush reminded Trump this was both impractical and a losing political strategy). And Trump's remark about Carly Fiorina -- "Why does she keep interrupting everyone?" -- was unseemly and sexist.
    Raul A. Reyes is an attorney and member of the USA Today board of contributors. Follow him on Twitter @RaulAReyes.

    Donna Brazile: The 'gimme' not 'gotcha' debate

    Donna Brazile-Profile-Image
    So, who won Tuesday night's Republican debate? The pundits who work for Fox Business seem pretty sure who won the debate -- and their unanimous consensus is that Fox Business won. At the end of the debate there was more self-congratulation than you would see at a Donald Trump rally.
    It's pretty obvious that this debate was designed to make it easy for the candidates, but it was even more obvious that it was meant to be a bed of roses for Fox Business. Their main objective seemed to be to studiously avoid anything that could even remotely smack of unfair questions so that they could triumphantly compare themselves to CNBC.
    But the refusal to press the candidates allowed parts of the debate to devolve into a series of competing stump speeches. Yes, moderators refrained from asking frivolous questions, but their lack of aggressiveness allowed the candidates to give frivolous answers.
    If there were no "gotcha" questions, there were plenty of what sounded like "gimme" questions. When Ben Carson was asked about media that were "obsessed with inconsistencies and potential exaggerations in your life story, but looked the other way when it came to then Senator Barack Obama's," it was softer than a softball question -- it was set up like a T-ball for Carson to smack out of the park.
    They didn't even follow up when Ted Cruz pulled a total Rick Perry! When listing the five federal agencies that he would abolish, Cruz stumbled and only ended up naming four because he said "Commerce" twice. The moderators either weren't counting, or think that there are two Departments of Commerce.
    One thing seems clear -- Donald Trump cannot find a friend at these debates, and that includes Donald Trump. The traditional, establishment types who make up the audiences at GOP debates consider Donald Trump to be a crass interloper who is damaging the party (though they seem to give Ben Carson a pass, perhaps because of his appeal to evangelicals.)
    But if nobody seems to be pulling for him, Trump does himself no favors by constantly taking ill-advised swipes at people. This time he asked why Carly Fiorina was always interrupting, earning himself some of the biggest boos of the night.
    No matter -- Trump will still speak to crowds of people wildly cheering his plans to deport 11 million people. The people in Trump's audiences don't attend the debates. The question is whether they will vote.
    Here are some thoughts on some of the other individual performances:
    --Ben Carson seems unable to make a point that doesn't end with him decrying "political correctness."
    --Marco Rubio is easily the best at disguising empty platitudes as a real answer. It's a skill that should not be underestimated.
    -- Even with a panel of moderators who were virtually serving him dinner, Ted Cruz still felt it necessary to bash the media, making an awkward joke about how journalists would care about border security if cheaper foreign journalists were sneaking into this country.
    -- Jeb Bush used his final 30 seconds to give a tip of the hat to our veterans. It was a brilliant political move...if he's running to win Miss Congeniality.
    -- Carly Fiorina has referred to people being "crushed" at least a half-dozen times in every debate. Literally.
    -- John Kasich proved that it's not enough to fight and get yourself as much air time as the big boys -- you have to have something gripping to say once you've got the microphone.
    -- Rand Paul has staked out territory as the conservative who opposes increased military spending. There is a reason the territory was vacant.
    In the end, there were enough dustups between candidates to keep things lively, even without the moderators actively encouraging engagement. We don't need the moderators to egg the candidates on, but it would be nice if they at least followed up on candidates' answers.
    Donna Brazile, a CNN contributor and a Democratic strategist, is vice chairwoman for voter registration and participation for the Democratic National Committee. A nationally syndicated columnist, she is an adjunct professor at Georgetown University and author of "Cooking With Grease: Stirring the Pots in America."

    Christian Whiton: Carson, Trump credibility eroding

    Christian Whiton
    Slowly but surely, the most unpredictable and unusual primary in modern Republican history is becoming clearer. After tonight's debate on Fox Business, it's still an outsider-dominated race, but at least part of the conventional wisdom looks to be coming true.
    That conventional wisdom has held that Donald Trump will ultimately decline, likely followed by Ben Carson as well. And while nothing in tonight's performance spells instant doom in polls for either man, a fatal erosion of credibility seems to be gaining speed.
    As with the last debate, Trump seemed diminished. With more professional moderators, neither Trump nor the other candidates could score points against overbearing media personalities.
    Ben Carson again displayed his admirable personality and made a fundamentally important point about how a high minimum wage drives scandalously high unemployment for young minorities. He displayed candor and genuine humility that is lacking in our public life.
    However, Carson is tacitly reminding Republicans that running for president ought not to be an entry-level political job.
    Meanwhile, Jeb Bush showed a bit of life and even some passion, but "energetic Jeb" seemed at times to be even more awkward than low-energy Jeb. Touting a 4%-growth program is sound but boring. Statements like, "The economic cost far exceeds the social benefits" are wonky. While his performance was not disastrous, Bush conveyed nothing that is likely to stem the gradual shift of Republican establishment support from Jeb to Marco Rubio.
    Furthermore, Bush and John Kasich once again presented voters with the false choice of either offering amnesty or immediately deporting 11 million people residing here illegally. Rank-and-file Republicans suspect that American common sense and pragmatism might open other possibilities. Ted Cruz turned the tables on the pro-amnesty candidates by invoking the economic challenges that uncontrolled immigration presents to the middle class.
    Rubio was energetic and even a bit caffeinated. He had great ideas: "We need more welders and less philosophers" was a great line. Ted Cruz's call for flat tax, regulatory reform and sound money combined with a shout-out to fiscal conservatives Coolidge, Kennedy and Reagan was solid.
    Conservatives like me made fun of Bill Clinton for saying, "I feel your pain," and rightly so -- a president needn't mimic Oprah. Nonetheless, Republicans need to get beyond tax plans and highfalutin talk about economic freedom and address the challenges of middle-class Americans who find it harder than before to buy a house, send kids to college, afford health care, and maybe even take a vacation once in a while. Republicans should hope their nominee has this skill.
    Carly Fiorina exhibited this on more than one occasion, including talking about a 40-year-old woman worried about her children's future amid the crush of big government. Most important, her invocations of experiences ranging from Silicon Valley change agent to cancer survivor conveyed that she is a real person with gravitas that could rival and surpass that of Hillary Clinton.
    Christian Whiton is a former deputy special envoy for human rights in North Korea for the George W. Bush administration. He is president of the Hamilton Foundation, a principal with DC Advisory, a public policy consultancy, and the author of "Smart Power: Between Diplomacy and War."

    Tara Setmayer: Rubio in command

    Tara Setmayer
    You won't hear any complaints about sensationalism over substance this time around. Many have been clamoring for more policy from the candidates and that's exactly what they got. However, for a debate that was billed to feature economics, it was the foreign policy portion that stole the show.
    Senator Cruz's highlight came with his response to the immigration discussion, the first memorable moment of the night. But arguably the biggest moment came during an exchange between Marco Rubio and Rand Paul over the role of U.S. overseas and military spending. Rubio won the exchange outright after pushing back Rand Paul's assertion that his stance on military spending was not a conservative one.
    Rubio said, "We cannot even have an economy if we're not safe...There are radical jihadists in the Middle East beheading and crucifying Christians. A radical Shia cleric in Iran trying to get a nuclear weapon. The Chinese trying to take over the South China Sea. ...I know, the world is a safer and better place when America is the strongest military power in the world. ...Either they win or we win, and we had better take this risk seriously, it is not going away on its own."
    Yes indeed. Which is why the foreign policy section also exposed Ben Carson for the neophyte that he is on one of the most fundamentally important roles of the president: commander in chief. It was clear Carson was out of his league and that should cost him support.
    Donald Trump, too, muddled his foreign policy responses, giving circuitous answers that were far from definitive. As voters begin contemplating who should occupy the Oval Office to make such decisions, they may re-evaluate their support for the politically inexperienced candidates.
    Senator Rubio overall had command of the issues, control over the discussion and delivered his message with charisma. From his "pro family" tax plans to his emphasis on representing a new generation of American leadership, Rubio has demonstrated in all four debates thus far that he possesses a unique ability to make the conservative message fresh, forward-thinking and relatable across voter demographics. All qualities the GOP will need to defeat Hillary Clinton in 2016.
    Tara Setmayer is former communications director for Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-California, and is a CNN political commentator. Follow her on Twitter @tarasetmayer.