Four years ago, at a Republican presidential debate moderated by Fox News host Megyn Kelly, a gay soldier asked GOP candidates a question.
“Do you intend to circumvent the progress that’s been made for gay and lesbian soldiers in the military?” the soldier asked.
The crowd booed.
Fast forward four years to the first Republican presidential primary debate of the 2016 election — moderated, again, by Fox News host Megyn Kelly.
“Gov. Kasich, if you had a son or daughter who was gay or lesbian, how would you explain to them your opposition to same-sex marriage?” Kelly asked Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R), who was the 10th and final candidate to have qualified for the debate.
“And guess what? I just went to a wedding of a friend of mine who happens to be gay,” Kasich said. “Because somebody doesn’t think the way I do doesn’t mean that I can’t care about them or I can’t love them. So if one of my daughters happened to be that, of course I would love them and I would accept them. Because you know what? That’s what we’re taught when we have strong faith.”
It was one standout moment in a performance that earned rave reviews for Kasich, who barely even made the debate stage but ended up as one of its clear winners, according to political strategists and observers. Along with former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, who was part of the second-tier debate earlier in the day, the two under-the-radar candidates emerged with clear momentum from debate No. 1.
“Kasich came out on top,” one veteran Republican strategist said.
“Kasich is killing it. Hopeful. Uplifting. Optimistic. And he has an appeal to those who think the GOP doesn’t care,” tweeted Ari Fleischer, the former press secretary in President George W. Bush’s White House.
That seemed to be the broad consensus across the consultant class. In fact, as The New York Times’ Maggie Haberman wrote in the paper’s “First Draft” morning newsletter, Kasich essentially “introduced himself to the rest of the country as a conservative more in the vein of” George W. Bush than his brother, GOP candidate and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R).
It became clear Thursday that Kasich is not a candidate in the mould of former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who was often thrown around as a potential comparison.
He sympathized with the sentiments of voters who have turned to Republican front-runner Donald Trump, admitting he had tapped into an “anger.” And on the biggest potential stumbling block of his night — when he was asked about his decision to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act — he stressed a message of compassion.
“I had an opportunity to bring resources back to Ohio,” he said. “To do what? To treat the mentally ill. Ten-thousand of them sit in our prisons, at $US22,500 a year. I’d rather get them the medication so they can lead a decent life.”
He seemed to have a hunch that he had a good night.
“From what I understand, Twitter’s kind of blowing up about me tonight,” he told reporters after the debate.
Hours earlier, Twitter blew up about another candidate — Fiorina, the former Hewlett Packard CEO. If there was a candidate from the second-tier debate that could move into the top 10 in CNN’s prime-time debate next month, the consensus was that it was not Texas Gov. Rick Perry — it was Fiorina.
She cast herself to a receptive audience as a political outsider, one who wouldn’t be afraid to “throw a punch.” She delivered harsh critiques of Democratic front-runner and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. And she wasn’t afraid to throw punches at Trump, even tying him to the Clintons.
“I didn’t get a phone call from Bill Clinton before I jumped in the race,” she said, referencing a report of a phone call between the two just weeks before Trump’s entry into the presidential race. “Any of you get a phone call from Bill Clinton? I didn’t. Maybe it’s because I haven’t given money to the Foundation or donated to his wife’s Senate campaign.”
What clinched it — at least for many conservatives on social media — was an interview between Fiorina and left-leaning MSNBC host Chris Matthews shortly after the first debate.
“Go through your list of where she’s lied,” Matthews told Fiorina, who had made the charge about Clinton.
And go through the list she did.
“I will ask her, for example, how she can possibly continue to defend Planned Parenthood. I will ask her why she continues to say she’s a champion of the middle class, while every single proposal she puts forward makes ‘crony capitalism’ worse and worse and worse, which makes income inequality worse,” Fiorina said.
“I would ask her why she declared victory in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2011. Why she called [Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad a ‘positive reformer.’ Why she thought she could stop [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s ambition, a man I have met, with a gimmicky red ‘reset button.’ I’ll ask her why she got every single foreign-policy issue wrong as secretary of state.”
“That’s how I’ll debate her,” she declared. “On the issues.”
Fiorina isn’t on that level yet. But come next month, if the reception to her debate performance in Round 1 was any indication, she could very likely be on stage with Kasich in prime-time.
“Carly Fiorina clearly belongs on the big stage,” said Greg Valliere, the chief political strategist at the Potomac Research Group. “She was scary good in the early debate.”
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