By Jessica McBride Special to Published Sep 17, 2015 at 9:36 AM

This campaign season is completely crazy. It’s impossible to predict the next narrative. For example: Who would have predicted that Donald Trump would lose – or at least not win – the debate Wednesday night by being boring?

Trump had a few dust ups at the top, to be sure – including a very entertaining stand-off with Scott Walker – and then he faded so much that I was about to wonder whether someone kidnapped him and carted him off stage (Rand Paul would be a logical choice).

It felt like Trump faded when the debate turned substantive, and he realized it wasn’t a 30-minute taping of "The Apprentice." This was highlighted when he was asked a question about rich people getting Social Security. He said he would turn it down for himself. Asked to extrapolate the "I" answer into a policy, he mumbled something about letting other people pick. Basically, you can sum up Trump’s debate answers as "I, I, I, I, I, I, I" – the end.

Someone must have told Trump to smile more and play super nice with everyone. He called Fiorina beautiful, said Bush’s wife is lovely and said he would get along well with Putin. What? I had a horrible image cross my mind of Putin and Trump riding around shirtless on bears together. Trump even gave Jeb Bush a high-five.

If you watched debate recaps without sound, you noticed even more so how often Trump smiled. Unfortunately for him, he kind of looked like the Grinch crossed with a Cheshire cat. I will say this: Most people will probably learn about the debate from headlines and Internet memes. There’s already a hashtag called #Trumpface. People want Grumpy Cat. My central theory about the Trump rise is that people are thinking, "He’s an SOB, but at least he’s OUR SOB." I'm not sure people want boring Trump. He will probably take a ding in the polls, but he’s so far up I’m not sure this is that damaging overall.

#Trumpface was rivaled by the meme about Jeb Bush smoking pot. Jeb Bush has now officially become the first politician in America to VOLUNTEER that he smoked pot. The other candidates didn’t take Rand Paul’s dare to tell us. I really wanted to know whether Trump or Walker ever smoked pot. On second thought, Walker already looks sleepy enough.

Yeah, there were some pretty weird moments. The pot revelation was rivaled by the revelation that Scott Walker wants the Secret Service to code name him "Harley," Trump thinks Carly Fiorina is beautiful and Rand Paul is ugly (he was nice to everyone but Rand Paul come to think of it) and Fiorina wants the Secret Service to name her after a horse. I am not making this up.

As for the Wisconsin governor, well, the fat lady is singing off stage, and I see no signs of Walker reversing the conventional wisdom and media glee that he’s toast. Walker needed to show up for this party. He did so, but barely. He was like the guy who was at the party and then disappears for a large chunk of it, and then returns at the end when everyone else is cleaning up the debris. Walker had the least screen time of all candidates with just over 8 minutes (Trump led with just over 18, and Bush was second with just over 15 minutes). It seemed like the moderator interrupted him a lot, too.

Here are my debate winners and losers:


Carly Fiorina

The only woman on the stage managed to dominate it, even against the bombastic Trump (who seemed like he had taken a sleeping pill partway through). Fiorina was the clear winner. She was substantive and policy-driven, but she somehow managed to balance that out with emotion and passion. She had one of the most memorable moments of the night when she went after Planned Parenthood, and another good one when she said Hillary’s a liar without accomplishments (somehow with her it didn’t seem like namecalling). Suddenly I realized: I would love to see Fiorina and Clinton debate. "This is about the character of our nation," she said, of those abortion videos – her shining moment.

She told us stuff about her bio that made us care, such as the fact she lost a child to drug addiction. This is no token candidate. She went toe-to-toe with Trump and didn’t flinch. She dominated in the right ways. Her only real weakness is her mixed record as a CEO. When Trump tried to raise that, though, she hit him back on his casinos and debt, and they both ended up looking mixed on the point, so it was fast forgotten.

Marco Rubio

If Fiorina owned the first half, Rubio seemed to own the second. When are Republicans going to wake up and realize this guy is a dream general election candidate for them? He seemed particularly informed on foreign policy and, well, he’s a "9." Sorry for evoking Trump, but someone had to say it. A Rubio/Fiorina or Fiorina/Rubio ticket would be a Democratic nightmare and a Republican ticket to victory.


For all the media babble about how out of control the Republican "circus" is, Republicans have a plethora of strong choices here. Their candidates get in the ring and have substantive policy debates (well most of them), and they are quite a diverse bunch. This debate – perhaps partly because of its three-hour length – actually ended up revealing who was substantive and could go beyond talking points and who wasn’t and couldn’t. There were enough people in the former category to give the Republicans good choices.

Meanwhile the Democrats have a tanking candidate they’re protecting from tough questions, a self-declared socialist, a governor no one’s ever heard of and a strong candidate who might not run.

Hot guy behind Jake Tapper

The hot guy constantly on camera behind the CNN moderator was trending on social media. When the anonymous hot guy in the audience is getting more buzz than certain Midwestern governors, you know they're in trouble.


Jeb Bush

I’m close to pegging Bush as a winner because he got a LOT of screen time, and people kind of revolved around him. They orbited around him. That’s important. He had some funny lines. He actually compared himself to a battery, and it was one of the funniest lines in the debate (he was trying to point out he really does have energy). I liked it when he defended his brother, saying he’d made us safer.

I think Bush still comes across a bit like a weakling, but he seemed like a pretty thoughtful self-deprecating guy. He wasn’t a standout star, but he didn’t do himself any damage (unless you think as the once presumptive front-runner he needed to be a standout star, and there is an argument for that too). But he was on TV a lot.

Ted Cruz

He was pretty strong in the first half, especially on questions like Iran. Then, he kind of faded. He might get a little bump, but he’s still more VP material to me.

Bobby Jindal

He was the only one in the kids’ table debate who looked and sounded like he belonged in the other one.

George W. Bush

Reviled by some, defended by others, poor Bush probably just wants to stick to his paintings, but he probably got more screen time than Scott Walker.

Chris Christie

After his weird comments comparing illegal immigrants to Fed Ex packages, I was kind of expecting him to blow up on stage, but he showed he has some speaking chops. Still, he just didn’t break out enough to become a top tier choice.


Hillary Clinton

Oh, yeah, when are the Democrats going to let her debate again? If the Republicans were protecting a female candidate from tough questions to this degree, they’d be accused of sexism. I want to see her get into the ring with Sanders and O’Malley (and maybe Biden). Say what you want about this or that Republican. At least they can take the heat.

Scott Walker

The Walker spin is that he "improved." He did improve. He seemed like he wasn’t asleep this time. He had a good opening skirmish with Trump. They were fencing – on the Trump record and on Wisconsin’s. Walker poked at a Trump achille’s heel: defensiveness and a tendency to talk only about himself. Instead of keeping Walker on the ropes about his own Wisconsin record, Trump started defensively talking about his own.

But this opening promise faded fast. Walker placed near the bottom of charts recording TV face time all the way through. Midway through the debate, he literally vanished as if someone had yanked a trap door out from under him. He had about two moments in the first hour and then disappeared.

He returned belatedly to trot out canned talking points with questionable segues, somehow managing to transition from George W. Bush and 9/11 to unions and how he never backs down and was recalled. He wasn’t awful when he spoke, and he was certainly more energized than last time, but he still kind of seemed like a wind-up doll someone fed catchy lines to try to get headlines.

Walker's next-day post-debate morning spin was that it's the moderators' fault because he was barely asked any questions. However, that just reminds people he's been forgotten (by the voters too) because people aren't finding him that interesting. Furthermore, he could have found a way to inject himself into the conversation more, like others did. But I think Walker is better at giving speeches (that's what he kind of did when he did get time) than adapting to free-flowing situations and conversations. He's like that in interviews too. Better at the direct than the follow-up.

He needed to do more because he’s registering two or three percent in the polls, and he now faces the odd possibility that when that debate comes up in Wisconsin this fall, he won’t make the stage.

Ben Carson

I almost forgot to put Carson in this column because he was so understated and thoughtful that he looked like he left the debate for huge chunks to go read a book or something. Not the performance he needed as the almost frontrunner guy. I like Carson as a person, but he just didn’t seem very dominant tonight.

Megyn Kelly

This debate was substantive and informative. The candidates had a thoroughly interesting and insightful debate on Iraq, for example, that teased out some differences among them. They also had an interesting conversation about legalizing marijuana (when are people going to start realizing border security is about the flow of drugs, not just people?).

This all highlighted how truly nutty the last debate was, though, and that was partly the fault of the moderators (so the other winners of this debate were the CNN moderators, who set a much more policy-driven professional tone, while still injecting some humor into it).

Rand Paul

For the first half of the debate, he didn’t seem quite as crazy as he did during the last debate, but he vanished for large chunks of the rest of it and then veered into a rambling lengthy tangent about pot. I kind of started thinking that he looked like someone who smoked a lot of pot and not just in high school. He’s not going anywhere.

John Kasich

He didn’t stand out in this debate as much as the last one, and he needed to because his support is just a few points over Lindsay Graham.

Mike Huckabee

He stopped being funny with all this Kim Davis stuff. Most people think the rule of law matters, and he’s starting to seem one-note.


Donald Trump

I am tempted to put Trump in the loser column for all the reasons mentioned above. He went against his brand as the brash, entertaining guy. He didn’t dominate. So that’s a loss because he’s leading in the polls, so people clearly responded to what he was selling before. I’m tempted to put him at neutral because he neutralized the depiction of himself as a nut and that could broaden his appeal (other than bringing up weird vaccine stuff).

But Trump’s expectations were so not normal. Basically, we think he wasn’t crazy because he didn’t run around naked on stage or sumo wrestle Chris Christie. It was a low threshold.

I’ve given up trying to predict what people think of Trump, so I am going to put him as "who knows?" However, if I had to choose, I’d say it’s closer to a loss because Trump’s support is visceral, emotional and symbolic. People just want the alpha male, and he was kind of beta tonight. His best line was when he said he wanted to kick all of the "bad dudes" out of the country. I’d like to see that movie.

Jessica McBride Special to

Jessica McBride spent a decade as an investigative, crime, and general assignment reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and is a former City Hall reporter/current columnist for the Waukesha Freeman.

She is the recipient of national and state journalism awards in topics that include short feature writing, investigative journalism, spot news reporting, magazine writing, blogging, web journalism, column writing, and background/interpretive reporting. McBride, a senior journalism lecturer at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, has taught journalism courses since 2000.

Her journalistic and opinion work has also appeared in broadcast, newspaper, magazine, and online formats, including, Milwaukee Magazine, Wisconsin Public Radio, El Conquistador Latino newspaper, Investigation Discovery Channel, History Channel, WMCS 1290 AM, WTMJ 620 AM, and She is the recipient of the 2008 UWM Alumni Foundation teaching excellence award for academic staff for her work in media diversity and innovative media formats and is the co-founder of Media, the UWM journalism department's award-winning online news site. McBride comes from a long-time Milwaukee journalism family. Her grandparents, Raymond and Marian McBride, were reporters for the Milwaukee Journal and Milwaukee Sentinel.

Her opinions reflect her own not the institution where she works.