GOP Debate Sorts the Fighters From the Statesmen

rice-logo by Gerald F. Seib, WSJ

Distinction raises question about the electorate: Do voters want a candidate who channels their anger, or one who acknowledges it yet moves beyond it?

BN-JT635_0807CA_M_20150807164712The initial Republican debate Thursday night provided entertainment aplenty, but also this bit of enlightenment: It divided the GOP field into two distinct camps, the fighters and the statesmen.

It says something about the national mood of 2016 that it isn’t entirely clear which is the better place to land.

Donald Trump is, of course, the leader of the fighters’ camp, as he showed again on the debate stage. Any expectation that a more sedate Mr. Trump would appear was blown away within seconds, when he opened the official Republican campaign season by threatening to run as an independent if he doesn’t get the nomination.

But it wasn’t only Mr. Trump. Sen. Rand Paul and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie also signed up for the fight card, as did former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee in his own, more folksy way.

While they were engaged in a kind of debate demolition derby, there was another group that seemed more interested in a calmer drive down the political parkway. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Sen. Marco Rubio, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Ohio Gov. John Kasich leaned more toward a policy discussion in the traditional mode. More than that, they appeared to think that the correct image to project in a presidential debate was the statesmanlike one, even if that might leave them appearing understated and even plodding at times compared with the crashing sounds around them.

This distinction reflects a deeper philosophical divide within the field. It also raises a broad question about the mood of the electorate—and the Republican primary electorate in particular—as the 2016 campaign gets serious: Are voters looking for a candidate who channels their anger, or one who acknowledges it, yet moves beyond it as the contest matures?

The question lingered Friday as GOP candidates moved on from the debate in Cleveland, with all sides agreeing it was a significant milestone in the nascent campaign. Nielsen figures indicated the prime-time event on Fox News drew a whopping 24 million viewers, making it the most-watched primary debate ever.

Mr. Christie, who got good reviews from some on the right for his performance, which hasn’t always been the case, appeared Friday at a gathering of conservative activists organized by the website RedState in Atlanta. Two other candidates trying to capitalize on strong notices also attended the event: Mr. Rubio, who was generally praised for his performance in the prime-time debate, and former Hewlett-Packard chief executive Carly Fiorina, who was widely considered the star of an earlier debate Thursday among seven contenders who weren’t invited to the prime-time event.

Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry—both of whom were relegated to the earlier debate—also appeared in Atlanta.

But as in the run-up to the debate, much of the attention in the aftermath focused on Mr. Trump. His aides are considering following up with a multi-million-dollar television advertising blitz in early nominating states, though they also said Mr. Trump himself is resisting, arguing that advertising isn’t necessary considering how much free media attention he is receiving.

As is often noted, Mr. Trump’s candidacy has tapped into feelings of anger, disillusionment with the system and annoyance at the political establishment. Mr. Kasich, for one, acknowledged as much at Thursday night’s debate, saying almost admiringly: “Donald Trump is hitting a nerve in this country. He is. He’s hitting a nerve. People are frustrated. They’re fed up. They don’t think the government is working for them.”

Mr. Trump didn’t create these feelings, however; they were already there to be revved up. Less noted is the fact that Messrs. Huckabee and Paul were there first, mining the same vein. Mr. Christie, by virtue of his personal style, has always played in this direction as well. He brings substance to the table—most notably his plan to trim Social Security and Medicare benefits for wealthier Americans to preserve the systems—but will be remembered more for the fight he picked Thursday night with Mr. Paul over government surveillance.

But if that kind of approach appeals to a certain slice of the electorate 15 months before Election Day, does it really appeal to the broader electorate, particularly when it comes time down the road to get serious and cast ballots?

Some have their doubts. “The fight camp is about dividing folks, like Obama has done,” said Scott Reed, who managed Bob Dole’s 1996 presidential campaign and now directs political operations for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “Statesmen are more about growth–growing the party and being upbeat and optimistic about the future.”

Similarly, Kevin Madden, who worked on Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign, says “these races ultimately always shift towards becoming a contest of who is the most presidential.”

Ultimately, says Republican pollster David Winston, this race will move to a candidate in “the economic policy camp. This election is likely to be focused on jobs and the economy.”

That helps explain why Mr. Bush talked studiously of 4% growth, fixing a “convoluted tax code” and immigration as an economic driver, and why Mr. Kasich talked not about a revolution but about a movement “to restore common sense. A movement to do things like provide economic growth.”

The question is whether anyone can bridge the fighter and statesman camps. On Thursday night, at least, the candidate who came closest may have been Mr. Rubio, who talked about “an economy that has been radically transformed” and offered a bit of Dodd-Frank regulation wonkery, while also picking a fight—though with Hillary Clinton rather than fellow Republicans.

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