After yesterday’s debate, more than a dozen political experts name the GOP candidates who’d be the most formidable debaters against Clinton.
The ability to defeat Hillary Clinton in a general election debate is the ultimate test of 2016’s Republican presidential hopefuls. That’s why, following tonight’s GOP primary debate in Milwaukee, Politico Magazine asked political experts on left and right which Republican candidate would fare best against Clinton.
GOP candidates like to brag about how they’d wipe the floor with the former Secretary of State in a debate. “I am Hillary Clinton’s worst nightmare,” Carly Fiorina confidently declared in an earlier debate. Months ago, Donald Trump predicted “beating [Clinton] in a debate would be one of the easy challenges of my life.” It seems every GOP candidate has, at one time or another, professed similar eagerness to take on the Democrats’ presumptive nominee. And each candidate claims to be the best person for the job.
That begs the question: who should Clinton really fear most? To cut through the spin, Politico Magazine’s experts spell out why the Republican candidates they select would have the best shot at beating Clinton one-on-one. These experts’ responses are collected below.
‘Cruz’s unmistakable erudition, well-oiled agility, and irritating, implacable calm would serve him well against a similarly square rival.’
By Erica Grieder, Texas Monthly Senior Editor
Considering how much disdain Ted Cruz elicits from his fellow Republicans, it’s highly debatable whether he can win his party’s presidential nomination. According to the most recent head-to-head matchups he’d be less likely to beat Hillary Clinton in the general election than Marco Rubio, Carly Fiorina, or even, God knows why, Donald Trump. But let’s give the guy some credit. When it comes time to meet Clinton on the debate stage, no Republican running is better equipped to run the table.
Cruz’s skills may not be obvious to a casual viewer. But his background is in appellate law, not reality television—and his opponent, in this hypothetical, is a known quantity. Cruz’s unmistakable erudition, well-oiled agility, and irritating, implacable calm would serve him well against a similarly square rival. Clinton would easily outclass Trump on character and sanity; she would ably outperform Carson on questions of policy. She could cast Rubio’s optimism as a symptom of inexperience, and his popularity as a measure of media bias. In Cruz, though, she would face a shrewd and wily outsider—an uncherished underdog who might actually seem sympathetic in contrast, and one with a long record of success in high-stakes debates.
‘Rubio or Cruz would be perfect against Hillary.’
By Erick Erikson, frequent commentator, radio host and founder of the blog RedState
Rubio or Cruz would be perfect against Hillary. Tonight in Wisconsin, Cruz again spoke less than many of the candidates, but every word was memorable. He really is impressive in few words, which is a rare gift for a politician. Rubio’s youth, but wisdom, shows on stage. He really has a great counter-message to Clinton and can run the Bill Clinton “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow” playbook that Hillary Clinton cannot. Both candidates had impressive performances.
‘[Clinton] would crush any of the three Republican novices (Trump, Carson, Fiorina) in a general-election debate’
By Jill Lawrence, columnist for U.S. News & World Report and USA Today
Hillary Clinton has one of the best resumes in politics and more debate experience than almost anyone in the field. She would crush any of the three Republican novices (Trump, Carson, Fiorina) in a general-election debate by exposing their inexperience and lack of policy depth. Her past debates in races for New York Senate and the New Hampshire primary suggest that as the first female nominee, she’d have an advantage against anyone who seemed too forceful or sarcastic (like Ted Cruz or Chris Christie). The GOP needs a non-threatening, knowledgeable figure who can relate to voters, draw a generational contrast and—importantly—energize conservatives without alienating others. Marco Rubio showed once again in Milwaukee that he comes closest to that ideal.
‘Marco Rubio is the best prepared to take on Hillary Clinton’
By Rick Wilson, Republican message and media strategist
Tonight’s debate showed once again that Marco Rubio is the best prepared to take on Hillary Clinton; on-point answers that connected to the concerns of Americans, grounded on conservative principle. We saw good performances from Fiorina and Cruz as well this evening, but it was another night where Rubio led the field. Preparation, issues knowledge, speed and fluency all matter, and as the contest with Hillary grows nearer you’ll see the unprepared and the undisciplined become increasingly marginalized.
‘Rubio is only getting slow pitches over the plate. Hillary Clinton will be far more ruthless and relentless.’
By Bill Scher, senior writer at the Campaign for America’s Future
“Who matches up best with Hillary” is the ultimate question Republican primary voters need to answer. Unfortunately for them, these RNC-controlled debate formats don’t provide good case studies.
Of the two center-right candidates that are plausible general election candidates, Rubio and Bush, the youngster again had the best night. More and more will likely see him as the best shot against Hillary. He was poised and prepared, and was able to parry what attacks came his way.
But Rubio is only getting slow pitches over the plate. Hillary Clinton will be far more ruthless and relentless. We don’t know yet how well Rubio holds up under real pressure, when he can’t easily respond with a portion of his stump speech.
Bush’s conversational yet wonky style isn’t a good fit for the primary debate stage, as it lacks strong applause lines and mic drops. But Hillary isn’t a flashy debater either, just a thoroughly prepared and experienced one. The challenge for Bush is to get Republicans to believe that the general election debate is apt to be a wonk-off rather than a screen test, and that he’s the best bet for surviving a wonk-off with a master of detail.
‘If the measure is who best understands the dynamics of a debate, the (surprising) answer may be Ted Cruz.’
By Jeff Greenfield, five-time Emmy-winning network television analyst and author
If the measure of an effective debate adversary to Clinton is the hateful term “optics,” the answer is Marco Rubio, who in fact was asked just that question, and responded with a smile (in Mark Twain’s phrase) “like a Christian with four aces.” He embodies youth, energy and a grasp of enough foreign policy to push back on her claims of experience.
If the measure is who best understands the dynamics of a debate, the (surprising) answer may be Ted Cruz. His entire approach to debates is to hit one core theme: I will bring down a corrupt, elitist, amoral system. His statement tonight that Clinton “embodies the cronyism of Washington” suggests how he would try to define her—the leftist who is on bed with the financial and cultural elites, who weakened America abroad and at home. There are plenty of Republicans who see Cruz as “our McGovern”—but I would be very careful about assuming that his central argument cannot succeed in weakening the presumptive Democratic nominee.
‘The best debate opponents for Clinton will be ones who manage to hold her accountable without looking harsh’
By Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, and Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball
Think about some of the times that Hillary Clinton has looked the best to the general public: 1998, when GOP overreach on her husband’s infidelity improved her favorability; January 2008, when an emotional response to a question arguably helped her spring an upset in New Hampshire; and just a few weeks ago, when Clinton largely held up under Republican siege at the Benghazi hearings. Voters appear to respond best to Clinton when she seems vulnerable or can claim to be unfairly condemned.
The best debate opponents for Clinton will be ones who manage to hold her accountable without looking harsh. That could be an argument for Marco Rubio, who can make tough attacks with a smile on his face. Ted Cruz is an exceptionally skilled debater, but he has a hard edge that could benefit Clinton. Carly Fiorina has proven adept on the debate stage, too, though her always-small chances of nomination have only faded as of late. But there’s no question she would be a fierce foe for Clinton in any verbal face-off.
Notice that these three—Rubio, Cruz, and Fiorina—have a potential White House ‘first’ that can match the history-making appeal of Hillary Clinton’s candidacy. Many voters enjoy breaking barriers, so countering or neutralizing the Clinton gender advantage levels the debate stage in a subtle but critical way.
‘I would most like to see Chris Christie face off against Hillary Clinton.’
By Heather Mac Donald, Thomas W. Smith fellow at the Manhattan Institute and contributing editor of City Journal.
A Republican’s biggest challenge in facing a Democrat debater is countering the not implausible claim that the solution to most problems is a government program. A Republican facing Hillary Clinton has an additional challenge of going up against a female. Fox News’s Megyn Kelly gave a peerless demonstration of the feminist double standard during the first Republican debate when she attacked Donald Trump for his nasty comments about females. Trump disparages men and women on an equal opportunity basis. But feminists revert to a stance of offended Victorian delicacy when a female is the target of uninhibited criticism.
I would most like to see Chris Christie face off against Hillary Clinton. He has the most confident, clear and virile delivery of the Republican field. But he is the most likely to trigger feminist vapors for his aggressiveness. And Bridgegate appears to be a bridge too far.
Fiorina is obviously inoculated against the gender card. Her critique of Obamacare last night as “crony capitalism at its worst”—a thousand-page bill that no one can understand—was highly effective. Also notable was her invocation of innovation and entrepreneurship as America’s secret sauce. Her own lackluster record at Hewlett Packard leaves her vulnerable to attack, however, even though being a mediocre CEO is a better preparation than being a successful politician for understanding the burdens that misguided government imposes on the economy. Fiorina’s explanation last night of zero-based budgeting was less than crystalline. To my mind, she overcompensates for being a female with greater than usual hawkishness, but that will not hurt her with the base.
That leaves Rubio. Carson is too tentative and mild in his delivery, however compelling his discussion last night of the minimum wage. Trump is too ignorant about policy, not to mention being an out-of-control boor. Cruz will rub too many people the wrong way, though his challenge to amnesty supporters last night to try to enter Mexico or China illegally and see how those countries would respond was masterful.
Rubio is a startlingly eloquent explainer of the philosophical and economic virtues of capitalism. The minutiae of the candidates’ tax plans are irrelevant. Few voters are going to decide based on whether someone has a 10 percent fair tax or a 16 percent flat tax. Rubio’s greatest handicap in opposing Clinton is his boyish appearance and high-pitched voice, which cut against the needed gravitas. Rand was right to criticize Rubio’s child care tax credits as inconsistent with a rigorous conservatism, but such hand-outs will likely not hurt him in the general election.
‘In the theatrics department, Cruz beats Clinton by a mile’
By Adele M. Stan, columnist for The American Prospect
There was a time when I thought Marco Rubio was the best the Republicans had to offer in a match-up with Hillary Clinton, in light of the generational contrast and the fact that Rubio comes across as well-versed and something close to reasonable. But after Tuesday night’s performance—in which I’d say he did well enough for a GOP primary race, but not for a general election debate—I’m saying “meh” to Marco (soon to be touring, no doubt, with Wally the Welder).
For substance, the only Republican hopeful who comes within range of Clinton is Kasich, but on the debate stage, he stumbles into incoherence, as he did when he tried to explain his position on whether to allow banks to fail in the midst of a financial crisis. So I’m going out on a limb here to say that the only way the GOP, drawing from the current field, gets ahead of Clinton in a debate setting is to go full-on crazy—which means none other than Ted Cruz. It’s well known that voters don’t care much for facts, but love a barbed line passionately delivered. In the theatrics department, Cruz beats Clinton by a mile. The question then is whether the American people will go for cunning, callow and crazy over experience, intelligence and sanity.
‘Rubio is becoming the champion of the Republican debaters’
By Brett O’Donnell, former advisor to the Bachman, Romney and McCain campaigns for president.
Politico’s question was confined to those on the stage tonight. Tonight’s debate missed Lindsey Graham who has proven himself to be a worthy debate opponent for Hillary Clinton on the most important issue facing our country, national security. But of those on the stage tonight, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz were the best debaters on the stage and most equipped to take on Hillary Clinton.
Rubio offers perhaps the best contrast, as articulated tonight: the difference between the past and future. Rubio understands how to win a political debate at both the tactical and strategic levels. He knows how not to disappear during the debate (Bush and Carson would do well to learn that lesson). He also understands the concepts of messaging and creating moments of competitive advantage in the debate as he did over Rand Paul while continuing to drive his message of the new American century. Rubio is also very likable, which is a stark contrast to Clinton, who is only, in words of her former boss, President Obama, “likable enough.” Voters vote for the person they think is most competent or presidential, shares their values and is likable. Rubio excels in all three of these categories. Clinton would attack his experience, and Rubio needs a better answer to that difference, but perhaps he is saving that for when confronting Hillary head on.
If “winning” matters (as Trump argues), then Rubio is becoming the champion of the Republican debaters. The question is whether or not that quality will matter enough to voters this time around. In 2011-12, Newt Gingrich saved his campaign twice on the notion that he’d be best to take on Obama in the debates. Will voters believe that quality is an important enough criterion in deciding who should take on Hillary? As a former college debate coach, I would hope so. We are fighting for the middle, and being able to articulate a cogent vision of the future vs. a back to the past Clinton vision may well propel Republicans back to the White House.
The … best equipped to take on Hillary Clinton in a debate would be Marco Rubio, Carly Fiorina and Ted Cruz’
By John Hart, Editor in Chief of Opportunity Lives
The top three candidates who would be best equipped to take on Hillary Clinton in a debate would be Marco Rubio, Carly Fiorina and Ted Cruz. All three once again shined as superior performers who are able to think quickly on their feet.
Rubio would provide a powerful “future vs. past” and “youth vs. yesterday” contrast not seen since Kennedy vs. Nixon (yes, I’m comparing Rubio to the likable Kennedy and Hillary to the less likable Nixon). Fiorina would effectively counter Hillary’s identity politics shtick by arguing that she is not running as the “woman candidate” but the candidate who happens to be a women. Cruz, who would not do well in a general election, would be captivating in a debate because of his intellect. The irony of Ted Cruz is he’s running against himself. He is an exceptionally gifted Washington politician who is a better politician than Hillary (but not Bill, and not Rubio).
‘Clinton is still on course to take the White House’
By Douglas Schoen, pollster for President Bill Clinton
It isn’t all together clear to me from watching this debate that any of the GOP candidates can beat Hillary Clinton.
Rubio remains the strongest choice to win a general election and he laid out a compelling vision for our future as a nation. Trump was measured and strong, better than ever before but it’s still not obvious that he can go toe-to-toe with Clinton on substance. While Carson was passionate and compelling on social issues, he was clearly out of his depth on economic issues—which are likely to be dispositive in the general election.
Cruz may well have been compelling to Republican primary voters who are happy, indeed eager, to let big banks fail, but he is making it increasingly difficult to see him getting elected President, should he win the nomination by some chance. And Fiorina proved she can be the lead attack dog against Hillary Clinton, not her rival for the presidency. As for Bush, he has yet to provide a rousing and optimistic alternative to Clinton—the person he targeted in this debate more than Rubio.
It follows that as of this evening, Clinton is still on course to take the White House.
‘[Rubio] wins new supporters every time he debates.’
By Ed Rollins, Republican political consultant.
We begin a debate with those who are knowledgeable and experienced about government, and those who are leading the polls. Nothing changed tonight.
Trump is Trump. He has a big presence and more than holds his own in any exchange. I don’t think he lost anything tonight, but he did not expand his base or make new converts by his knowledge of business or the economy. This should have been his strongest debate, but wasn’t.
Rubio, as usual, had a great debate. He is articulate, well prepared and has a clear concise answer for every question on any subject. He wins new supporters every time he debates. I think he won going away.
Dr. Carson is a nice man! After a tough week, he got through tonight with no additional harm. But he certainly didn’t impress anyone by his knowledge of government or potential solutions. But if you like him, you still will.
Jeb had his best night of the debates. I don’t think he moved to the top of the pack, but his supporters know he still has a pulse and maybe able to survive for a while longer. Didn’t convert any new supporters. I don’t think anyone else moved up. All are smart. Some are irritable. Nobody screwed up!
‘Kasich has an appealing case to make against Hillary, offering comparable experience and not completely unreasonable math.’
By John Neffinger, director of the Franklin Forum PAC and lecturer on political communications at Georgetown and Columbia Universities
Carly Fiorina looked good tonight—still not especially warm and fuzzy, but she projected competence without seeming mean. It was easy to imagine why she got the top job at HP. If she keeps this up, stylistically, she could match up nicely on a stage with Hillary, taking away the mantle of history and offering a contrasting resume.
Kasich has an appealing case to make against Hillary, offering comparable experience and not completely unreasonable math. Moreover, he articulates warmth values well, which offers a nice balance to traditional perceptions of Republican toughness. Stylistically, he’s still too often shambolic, which could highlight her already impressive poise.
Rubio continues to deliver his mini-speech answers appropriately and to nice effect. There is still the water bottle factor though: is he ready for prime time? Tonight he was not quick on his feet when Rand Paul called his child tax credit welfare: his response felt weak and desperation. The thought is the contrast of his youth next to Grandma Clinton could be powerful, but it seems as likely to highlight his uneasiness and inexperience.
Carson and Trump each have their unique personal appeal, and it’s unclear that factor would be diminished by sharing a stage with Hillary Clinton. But neither one has done their homework well enough yet to survive a policy conversation with Hillary. It’s one thing to be George W. Bush and offer your homespun ignorance as a virtue, but Trump and Carson both claim to be very worldly and knowledgeable. Either could be competitive if they stepped up though.
‘The biggest gainer among the candidates was, of course, Marco Rubio.’
By Michael Medved, nationally syndicated conservative talk radio host.
Everyone will select the Fox Business panel as the most conspicuous winner in the whole night of debates: the contrast with CNBC worked entirely to FBN’s favor. The questions were often tough, but never unfair, insulting or irrelevant.
The biggest gainer among the candidates was, of course, Marco Rubio. As always, he seemed well-prepared, knowledgeable, confident and eloquent. The difference this time came with the intense confrontation between Senator Rubio and Senator Paul over child-friendly tax credits and defense spending—a confrontation that unfolded entirely to Rubio’s advantage. That exchange indicated just how completely Marco Rubio could dominate a debate with Hillary Clinton.
The other candidate who also gave an indication of mastering this difficult format was Carly Fiorina, who reminded everyone why her nomination could be a nightmare for the Clinton campaign. Though she seemed a bit tired, almost weary, in the early stages of the debate she got stronger as the night wore on. While she won’t receive the sort of supercharged boost that she got from the second debate (the first in which she participated) she should succeed in making herself relevant again—perhaps replacing Jeb among the “final five” with a real chance of going all the way. If nothing else, as my 23-year-old son Daniel observed: “She powerfully advanced her campaign for the Vice Presidency.”
Dr. Carson will also benefit from his performance—more energetic, more substantive, better informed than ever before, without losing the aura of a good guy and citizen candidate who is deeply determined to do the right and decent thing. He should succeed in calling a halt to the invidious nit-picking by the mainstream media about irrelevant aspects of his biography. He missed, however, offering the one killer line that could have defused this stupidity even more effectively. Why not question the stubborn media refusal to believe him when he recalls his own past as a troubled kid? Isn’t he more credible on this issue than CNN or Politico? Wouldn’t he know better than skeptical reporters 45 years after the fact about whether he actually had problems controlling his temper?
Ted Cruz had some good lines, as always, but his melodramatic, preachy, stagey delivery undermined him at every turn. He offered oratory more than answers, and bore a particularly unctuous and uncomfortable resemblance to a rising televangelist asking for contributions to his ministry. He squirmed uncomfortably on the issue of abandoning the depositors in a failing big bank—when he could have cited the FDIC, or other existing protections.
Trump came across as surprisingly timid, befuddled, uncertain and unconvincing, seeming no more genuinely impassioned than his listless performance on SNL. No, the debate won’t kill him, but it won’t help him push beyond his current ceiling of 30 percent support—with the other 70% still deeply determined to resist Trump-mania. It might be a high enough level of support to win some significant primaries, but probably not enough to win the nomination. Did Donald look commanding and tough when he whined about Carly “always interrupting people”?
Finally, there’s John Kasich. Obnoxious, incoherent, insufferable. He cast himself as the unwelcome skunk at the garden party, somewhat in the manner of Bobby Jindal in the “undercard” debate. Only the impenetrable confusion of his performance saved him from total disaster, but he certainly should either join the undercard or the former candidates before the next debate five weeks from now.
In sum, the contours of the rest of the race seem more clear than before: Trump and Carson will hold most of their true believers, with Marco Rubio gaining dramatically (and benefiting the most from Jeb’s inability to “fix it”). Ted Cruz maintains a lane on the outside, at the right edge of the highway, and Fiorina and Christie could survive if they make some polling gains in New Hampshire.
For the rest of the field, time to think about the openings for new celebrity hosts over at Fox News.