The process of winnowing the 17 Republican presidential candidates down to one nominee began Thursday night with the first televised debate co-sponsored by Fox News and Facebook.
The rousing debate was full of zingers and jabs, but lacked any ground-breaking revelations or new ideas that really have legs. The candidates vilified Hillary Clinton, smacked Obamacare and promised to balance the budget. Yes, there were differences: Rand Paul eschewed war and foreign aid; Jeb Bush stood up for the much-maligned Common Core curriculum. But mostly, there was a lot of talk, and lot of GOP talking points.
And bombastic billionaire Donald Trump never once said anything like, “My previous comments were taken out of context.”
Here’s what was notable, however: For the first time, there are two solid GOP presidential candidates who call Miami-Dade home — former Florida Gov. Bush and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio. And Mr. Trump, who owns prime properties in our back yard, is pretty much an honorary homeboy.
Their work in the purple state of Florida catapulted Mr. Bush and Mr. Rubio onto the national stage. That’s probably why Mr. Bush wore a purple tie to the debate.
The lively and, at times, heated debate began when one moderator asked if each candidate would pledge to support the person ultimately picked as the Republican nominee. Mr. Trump wasn’t having any of it. He might run as an independent if the party rejects him. Sen. Rand Paul went on the attack — and the debate was off and running.
Mr. Rubio all but ignored Chris Wallace’s question asking him to respond to Mr. Bush’s assertion that the 44-year-old senator is not experienced enough for the White House. Sen. Rubio instead went on a tirade against presumed Democratic nominee Clinton. “This is not a resume competition — if so, Hillary wins,” he said. “We will be the party of the future, not the past.” A right hook to Clinton — and a subtle jab to the 62-year-old son and brother of former presidents.
Mr. Bush, who mentioned at every opportunity his Florida governorship, was asked the eternal question: “Does this country need another Bush?” He stumbled over the words “bar” and “barrier” and “we had” and “we have,” then declared himself his own man.
Mr. Bush stepped up later on. He was challenged on his immigration stance and his statement that illegal immigrants “break the law,” but do it for the love of their family. Mr. Bush was clear and forceful. He said that he believes in “earned legal status” for them. It was one of his strongest responses.
The candidates attacked each other, and one blow from Sen. Ted Cruz landed on Sen. Rubio about comprehensive immigration-reform efforts.
“I led the fight against Chuck Schumer’s Gang of 8 amnesty legislation,” said Mr. Cruz. Ahem, Sen. Rubio was one of the “gang members.”
On substance, Sen. Rubio and Mr. Bush stayed on course on immigration, the economy, school curriculum reform and abortion.
Overall, Sen. Rubio seemed more comfortable with the questions and the format. Big smile, fewer stumbles.
Mr. Bush seemed stilted, a bit of that deer-in-the-headlights look at times, but still gave strong answers through it all.
Who won? A candidate who didn’t even have a prime-time podium: Carly Fiorina, relegated to an earlier debate for the B-listers, came out swinging. Game on!