While there were no medals or ribbons given out following Thursday’s Republican primary showing, there was an absolute, clear-cut victor — sort of. Depending on who you asked, the winner of the GOP debate seemed to be a toss up between former neurosurgeon Ben Carson, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. Although the other candidates brought a strong game to the night's discussion, both social media and the crowd of political analysts in attendance were relatively determined in their myriad of opinions.
Of course, going into the debate, the award could have predictably gone to anyone, given the entries into Thursday’s fiasco. There was the obvious media choice, a primped and brash Donald Trump whose windmill of statements over the past month and a half have more than served up a hefty dose of headline-grabbing content to outlets worldwide; or the victory could have gone to the equally emboldened even-handed and slightly more believable candidate like Mike Huckabee, whose slightly lackluster responses on Thursday still made for decent water cooler material. Perhaps the winner of tonight’s debate wasn’t even on the big stage. With the leftover (but equally impassioned) poll-duds kept out of the main debate on Thursday, the winner could have simply been unlucky enough to not make the final cut, especially considering the praise surrounding former HP CEO Carly Fiorina's showing earlier in the evening.
Fortunately for political analysts and campaign managers alike, the shortlist of Thursday’s debate winners was fruitful, with any number of candidates conceivably taking the first big win of primary season, and bolstering their political coffers going forward.
Carson, slow to establish much of a presence, scored big late in the game, finishing on a high note.
"Ben Carson is a good, decent dude," wrote one Twitter user, impressed by the former surgeon's gentility during Thursday's debate. "It's nice to see a candidate like that." Another prospective voter admitted that Carson seemed to be nice as well, tweeting,
Not sure any minds were changed tonight. Only real surprise for me was Ben Carson's fabulous sense of humor. What a great guy he is!
Political analysts alike agreed that Carson managed to slip in a few important jabs, at one point stating to great applause,
There is no such thing as a politically correct war.
Finishing the night on a high note (at least in the eyes of Republican voters), Carson added that the current tenuous debate over the #BlackLivesMatter movement only served to divide the country — something that the country needed to put a stop to if it looked to move forward.
Playing off his home field advantage, Kasich, too, managed to pool increased support, putting a name to the face that may have otherwise gone unnoticed. In one impressive moment, the Ohio governor secured at least a few guaranteed headlines when he answered Kelly's question of how he would explain his opposition to same-sex marriage to one of his own children, if they themselves were gay. Speaking candidly, Kasich replied:
Look, I'm an old-fashioned person here and I happen to believe in traditional marriage. But I've also said that the court has ruled … and I said we'll accept it. And guess what? I just went to a wedding of a friend of mine who happens to be gay. 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.
Kasich also jumped on the unity train, finishing his statements with a positive call for unity and embracing of one another's differing beliefs.
In terms of actual unity, Rubio seemed to be one of the few names of the night that didn't try to pick fights with his fellow Republicans, calling out Hillary Clinton instead and explaining that in a general election based on résumés alone, Clinton would win due to her longtime career in Washington. Still, he maintained, the election wasn't about résumés, it was about someone who could relate to the average American — and in that sense, the GOP had won.
"God has blessed us with some very good candidates — the Democrats can't even find one," said Rubio, harpooning the former Secretary of State. Further, he contended, Clinton was disconnected from regular civilians. "How is she going to lecture me on student loans, when I owed $100k until four years ago?" asked Rubio, who said he could empathize with those who had lived "paycheck to paycheck".
Ending the night with a bang, Rubio (who largely avoided major drama throughout the debate) aligned himself as the new face of the party, a son of immigrant parents who had pursued his dreams and could accurately represent the American people.
Although there may have been a number of perceived winners on Thursday night, perhaps the biggest winner of the evening wasn't one of the candidates at all, but moderator Megyn Kelly herself, who scored a number of heavy hits against the bevy of Republican men who deigned to skirt the issues at hand.
"Two words," tweeted CNN senior correspondent Brian Stelter, "Megyn Kelly (or one Twitter handle: @MegynKelly)."