Arnold Ahlert: THE COMPETITION HEATS UP

Last night’s CNN-sponsored GOP presidential debate at the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, CA was promoted with the title "It’s On: Watch Sparks Fly.” Debate moderator Jake Tapper was joined by CNN’s Dana Bash and radio host Hugh Hewitt, who posed additional questions to the 11 candidates, including Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Mike Huckabee, Carly Fiorina, Rand Paul, Scott Walker, John Kasich and Chris Christie. And while CNN shamelessly attempted to engender a political food fight, the candidates themselves mostly refused to play along.

Tapper opened the debate by giving each candidate 30 seconds to introduce themselves, and most of them spoke of the need to restore America and take on the status quo of out of control government.

After a desperate attempt to goad several candidates into attacking Trump on stage, the first substantial topic raised was Russia moving troops into Syria. Tapper asked Trump what he would do to get Russia out. Trump was evasive, saying he would get along with Putin and he would allow Syria and ISIS fight it out, and then “we could pick up the pieces.” Meanwhile, Rubio noted that Obama is allowing Putin to reestablish Russia as a geopolitical force. Fiorina said she wouldn't talk to Putin at all, but engage in military maneuvers demonstrating American strength, which she then detailed.

By far, one of the top foreign policy concerns of Americans at the moment is the disastrous nuclear deal brokered between the Obama administration and the Islamic Republic of Iran, which most Americans oppose. The Iran deal will no doubt be a major issue between any future Republican presidential candidate and Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton, who recently issued a full-throated defense of the accord. Republican candidates were not shy about making their positions on the deal known. Cruz was asked to respond to Kasich’s assertion that Cruz was “playing to the crowd” regarding his vigorous opposition to the deal. “I will rip up the Iran deal the first day in office,” Cruz stated, elaborating on the idea that no president has the right to give up national sovereignty. ​Kasich offered the already discredited idea that the sanctions could be "snapped back" if Iran cheats. Cruz highlighted the folly of that idea and further noted Obama is violating federal law by not turning over all parts of the Iran deal to Congress.

Turning to an issue that has stolen the national spotlight as of late -- and causing tension among conservatives in Congress -- Tapper brought up the growing movement to defund Planned Parenthood. The candidates on stage mirrored the growing split among congressional conservatives, some of whom are considering risking a government shutdown to accomplish the defunding, while others view this as a bad strategy. Defunding Planned Parenthood was advocated by Kasich, but he didn’t think the GOP should shut the government down to do so. Cruz encouraged every American to watch the recently released Planned Parenthood videos and chastised Republicans for “preemptively surrendering” on the issue. Christie was the first candidate to bring Clinton into the fray, saying she supported Planned Parenthood butchery. He further outlined a number of agendas the GOP should force Obama to veto, such as tax reform and defunding ObamaCare. Fiorina deftly explained that the Planned Parenthood videos are about defining the “character of the nation.” All the candidates generally agreed with defunding Planned Parenthood and funding women’s health at the local level.

Tapper moved it back to personal attacks, asking Fiorina about Trump’s disparagement of her face. Fiorina responded gracefully, saying that every woman heard what Trump said, to loud applause.

After the break, immigration took center stage, by far one of the top issues of concern to grassroots conservatives (particularly illegal immigration). The topic has created tensions between conservatives who favor a tough approach to immigration and those who have favored a more lenient approach, including some support for amnesty for illegal aliens. Trump reiterated his stance about building a wall. Christie wanted to use technology to keep track of everyone coming into the country. Carson promoted double-tier fences that were effective in Arizona. 

Immigration was another area where the CNN moderators tried desperately to engineer a dispute between the candidates. Dana Bash pushed another fight between Trump and Bush. Bush remains pro-amnesty and derided the notion of deporting people, while Trump, who criticized Bush for speaking Spanish at a campaign event, insisted we must have assimilation and that speaking English is an essential part of it. Rubio brought up his family story and insisted Spanish was part of the equation to get his message out. Carson wants to seal the border, seal off the “goodies” and allow a guest worker program. “I am the only candidate on this stage who never supported amnesty,” Cruz said. 

On economy and jobs Tapper once again fostered a confrontation between Fiorina and Trump. Fiorina defended her tenure at Hewlitt Packard, while Trump attacked it. Fiorina fired back that Trump used “other people’s money” to fund casinos that went bankrupt, likening it to the accumulation of our national debt. Trump defended his record saying he had “great timing” getting out of Atlantic City when he did. Responding to the exchange, Christie said Americans couldn’t care less about either candidates’ careers and that we should talk about how ordinary Americans are losing ground.

Foreign affairs began with yet another attempt to create a rift between Rubio and Trump. It centered on Rubio’s concern about Trump’s failure to know the names of foreign leaders during a radio interview with Hewitt. Trump promised to get up to speed, while Rubio took on Obama and his foreign policy failures. Bush insisted America “needed to restore its leadership in the world” and he promised to employ a team of experts that would promote “peace through strength.” 

One particularly notable exchange on the issue of foreign policy occurred between Trump and Bush. Trump insisted he fought against going into Iraq because it would destabilize the Middle East and also said George Bush’s incompetence gave us Barack Obama. The harsh comment was met with silence from the audience. Bush fired back saying his brother “kept us safe,” which the audience applauded. The repartee, and the audience's reaction to it, suggested that candidates who are inclined to support isolationist policies, such as Paul, who bragged that he had made a political career out of opposing the Iraq war, ought to tread lightly; Republican primary voters do not widely agree with Trump or Paul's interpretation of Iraq and oppose soft approach to combating terrorism. Christie, picking up on the vibe of the audience (and no doubt viewers at home), effectively spoke about his personal tribulation when America was attacked on 9/11 and added that he also supported George W. Bush for making America safe. 

In the final segment, candidates were asked how the world would be different after they left office. Paul wanted to leave the world in peace, and would only go to war when necessary. Huckabee provided essentially the same answer, along with abolishing the IRS. Rubio would like to leave the world freer, including his parents' native homeland of Cuba. Cruz would leave the nation far stronger and more economically secure, and “defend every single word” of the Constitution. Carson would leave the nation far more unified, fiscally sound and in a strong leadership position. Trump would make America “greater than it has ever been before.” Bush envisions a country of “high growth” that will lift millions out of poverty. Walker believes in reinvigorating American optimism. Fiorina referred to Lady Liberty and Lady Justice and a nation that promotes both ideals. Kasich will make America “a nation that solves problems” and revive the "concept of citizenship," while Christie emphasized “enforcing the law and leveling the playing field.”

The debate concluded on that note. And while no clear winner emerged, no one did irreparable damage to his or her campaign. What did emerge was the reality that Democrats have a lot to worry about: each candidate demonstrated reasonable levels of insight regarding the various issues facing the nation, as well as a candidness and honesty unmatched by Democratic counterparts Hillary Clinton, Sen. Bernie Sanders or, presumably, Vice President Joe Biden. 

Going into last night, the 11 candidates had the following percentage of the vote, according to four separate polls averaged out by Real Clear Politics: Trump (30.5%), Carson (20%), Bush (7.8%), Cruz (6.8%), Rubio (5.3%), Huckabee (4.5%), Fiorina (3.3%), Paul (3.3%), Walker (3%), Kasich (2.5%) and Christie (1.5%). It will be up to the public to move these totals one way or the other. If one were to pick a candidate who might move up more than others, perhaps Fiorina, because she carried herself well and was the only newcomer to the first-tier debate. If one were to pick a candidate who might lose support, perhaps it’s Trump, as the race has entered a new level of competitiveness and voters are searching for more specific policy proposals. However, with the candidates as competent as they are, the winnowing process is sure to be a lengthy one.