It was a fast two hours Monday evening at St. Anselm College at the Voters First Forum, where 14 of the Republican candidates for president joined each other (except for 3 U.S. senators, who spoke remotely from Washington) to answer questions.
The forum skirted the Republican National Committee’s debate rules by having the candidates take the stage individually, in two rounds. With short and strictly-enforced time limits for each candidate, the event moved quickly and, at times, chaotically. While not on stage, the candidates sat in the front row of the auditorium, watching their competitors answer a few questions from the moderator. It was an odd set-up—Chris Christie told me a few hours before that it would feel more like they were all running for student body president—but one that allowed every participant more or less equal time to make their case to the voters of New Hampshire and those watching at home on C-SPAN.
The event also made clear how much deeper and better the Republican field is compared with that of the 2012 cycle. Some of the best performances came from those candidates who are unlikely to end up in this week’s first RNC-sanctioned debate in Cleveland. Three candidates did not attend: Donald Trump, Mike Huckabee, and Jim Gilmore.
Here’s a rundown of how each participant performed, in alphabetical order.
The format should have played to Bush’s strengths—a seated conversation with mostly policy-based questions. And the former Florida governor had a couple good lines, including one concerning his promise to produce four-percent economic growth as president, something the liberal economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman has ridiculed. “The fact that Paul Krugman disagrees with me warms my heart.”
But Bush failed to give direct and succinct answers to a couple questions from the moderator. Asked if he would give the order to deploy ground troops to the Middle East to defeat ISIS, Bush said, “I would take the advice of the military very seriously. We need a strategy, first…. Yeah, I think we need special forces. Boots on the ground? I’m not sure that’s necessary.” Near the end, Bush tried to lightheartedly praise his father while touting a T-shirt his campaign is selling, but he mangled it and ended up confusing the audience.
The neurosurgeon-turned-conservative-folk-hero has run a subdued campaign so far, but Carson delivered a good performance in New Hampshire Monday night. With his characteristically calm demeanor, he dealt with questions about Obamacare and the Supreme Court methodically. Carson was light on specifics. His critique of Obamacare focused more on how it passed five years ago than the problems it’s causing to the health-care system today. And asked what sort of qualifications he would look for in a nominee to the high court, Carson said he’d be “making sure that they truly understand the Constitution.”
Carson made a strong case for why someone without political experience, like himself, can offer a new and better path forward for the country. But overall, the quiet doctor didn’t stand out at the forum, which doesn’t bode well for his ability to do so at Thursday’s higher-profile debate on Fox News.
Christie demonstrated why he’s not to be underestimated as an alternative establishment candidate to Jeb Bush. His “tell-it-like-it-is” routine plays well and rings true, particularly when discussing the need to reform federal entitlements. The problem, in his words, isn’t the inability for Americans to embrace the necessary changes to Social Security and Medicare. “The problem is us,” he said, gesturing to himself and his fellow politicians. “We underestimate the American people."
The New Jersey governor has spent a great deal of time in New Hampshire, holding long town hall meetings (the next one, his sixteenth, is Tuesday morning) where he engages in the humorous and personal back-and-forth he’s become well known for. On display Monday night, however, was the other, introspective side of Christie, particularly when he was asked why he decided to run. The subtext to the question was Christie’s precipitous fall in the expectations game following the Bridgegate scandal in 2014.
Christie said when he considered running for president in 2012, he looked in the mirror and decided he wasn’t ready for the job. “Everything that’s happened to me in the last 4 years, both good and bad, have made me better,” he said. “I’m ready.”