Borg: Compare the republican presidential nomination campaign to a grocery store aisle, the products on the shelves competing for attention, somehow meriting your selection. Well, continuing that metaphor, this week's republican candidate debates provided shelf space. 10 candidates making it into a primetime debate, supposedly getting better display than those polling lower. What worked and what didn't? We're asking experienced Iowa republican activists, Des Moines Attorney and former gubernatorial candidate Doug Gross, Craig Robinson edits iowarepublican.com and Des Moines Attorney Matt Whitaker, a former U.S. Attorney and political candidate himself, losing the republican U.S. Senate nomination to Joni Ernst two years ago. Welcome, gentlemen. Starting right off, last night and Thursday night you watched the republican events. Give me, on a scale of 1 to 10 with 10 being very effective, how effective were those events in differentiating candidates in, let's continue the metaphor, on the shelf to merit your selection? Doug?

Gross: I give it a 10. I think it was one of the most entertaining nights of debates I've ever seen. I watched the whole thing. I stayed awake. It was interesting. And frankly I thought the moderator did a fantastic job.

Borg: Matt Whitaker, just a number.

Whitaker: Yeah, it was a 10. It was outstanding.

Robinson: I thought it was a 3 but it depends on who you were. Chris Christie had the opportunity to really go up against candidates at will it seemed, he was invited to do so. So, for him it was a 10, for everyone else it might be a 3.

Borg: Well, with that spread we've got a lot to talk about. I want to introduce the Gazette's James Lynch and Radio Iowa's News Director Kay Henderson.

Henderson: Well, the question I have coming out of this for Iowans who have been hearing these candidates on the trail, Craig, for months, if not years, what was said in that debate that has changed things in Iowa?

Robinson: Well, I think there was, for example, I always think there's a debate within the debate. You had -- I thought what mattered last night is when you look at Mike Huckabee, Ted Cruz and maybe Ben Carson were really going after the social conservative vote here in the state. And you can add Scott Walker into that too. I thought Huckabee was giving opportunities to answer questions that would really cater to those voters that he's trying to go after. Ted Cruz at the end was able to kind of get in some material that will appeal. But Ben Carson and Scott Walker really weren't given a lot of opportunities to appeal to Iowa's social conservatives. So in that respect, by the questions that they were given, I thought Mike Huckabee had a really good opportunity to say, I'm your champion again. So I think it really matters on who was asked what and Huckabee benefited by that.

Henderson: In 2012 you picked a couple of horses in the race. But this time you're neutral. You haven't chosen a --

Whitaker: I am neutral. And I'm going to caucus but I'm not going to publicly support any candidate.

Henderson: So tell Iowans what you thought stood out from an Iowa perspective last night.

Whitaker: Well, from an Iowa perspective, first of all, for those of us that have met these folks and know them on a personal basis, not much new ground was plowed. For those that have not been engaged in the process, for example, my wife Marcy, this was the first time she's seen all 10 of them, 17 if you count the 7 in the pre-debate debate, and she had some interesting perspective because I know these people --

Henderson: Can you tell us?

Whitaker: Yeah, she thought Jeb Bush -- she liked Jeb Bush and that was confirmed by another person's wife that is an activist but the spouse is not as active as he is. And so I think Jeb Bush did a lot of good for himself just looking presidential, being tall and commanding. I think that the spat between Chris Christie and Rand Paul, I loved it because those are the issues that I care about. Chris Christie was a colleague of mine, as U.S. Attorneys I know Chris well. I'm probably more a little bit like Rand Paul from the issue of 4th Amendment search and seizure and the mass collection of data. But, that being said, I thought that was a wonderful interaction where both sides were able to stake out this is what we believe and why we believe it. But I think fundamentally the one person that probably continued to excel his brand is Trump. Donald Trump was who he is, he's attracting people because of his bluntness and it doesn't seem right now that anything sticks to him, even being a misogynist.

Borg: Doug?


Borg: Did Iowa learn anything more? I heard several lines that I could have repeated myself.

Gross: During the course of the debate. I thought the key to the debate was Trump because Trump got trumped by Fox News. That's the only place he could get trumped by because they can't be accused of bias and I thought Megyn Kelly won the debate.

Borg: Jim, I want to ask, judging from what they have just said, is this going to change what we're seeing here in Iowa at all now in expenditures, given the fact that they're playing on a national field now, this isn't Iowa focused, they're playing on a national field, they're playing for national poll numbers, is it going to -- what we saw Thursday night -- is it going to change expenditures and time spent in Iowa?

Lynch: Well, I think for some of the candidates it probably will, they have to shore up their base here, some of them probably will. I think maybe for Carly Fiorina, who really between the two debates she probably was the big winner because she got rave reviews in that happy hour debate and people probably will pay more attention to her now and want to see more of her.

Gross: I think the difficulty with these debates is -- and we have limited the number of them and their participation is dependent upon national poll situation -- is it nationalizes the discussion, it nationalizes the debate. So it impacts a guy like Bobby Jindal who is spending all kinds of time in Iowa trying to jumpstart a campaign through organization when in fact it is determined by national polls rather than what people in Sigourney think. And that hurts Iowa and that's what is going on right now.

Borg: Craig, is that going to change immediately then that candidates see -- Bobby Jindal is going to start spending less money in Iowa?

Robinson: Well, Bobby Jindal's super PAC is spending a lot of money and not just in Iowa but nationally to increase those poll numbers. It didn't work. I think what some of these candidates have to do is, look, they all take the opportunity to go whack away at Donald Trump or a front-runner like Jeb Bush. I look at this debate stage and say, look, it's easy, you need to get the guy that is the last guy on, get him off and so that you can elevate up. So why are you attacking Jeb Bush and Donald Trump when you should be attacking Chris Christie and someone like Governor Kasich, who all those candidates in that pre-debate had the opportunity to take issue with Kasich's Medicaid expansion and they all took a pass including Bobby Jindal and I thought it was a missed opportunity.

Henderson: Craig, you keep in touch with people on Twitter and through your website and we run into people at events, I sort of stepped back from it and thought, don't people watch this to see who is the most presidential? So the exchange between Chris Christie and Rand Paul didn't offer either of them the opportunity that a Huckabee, that you mentioned previously, to elevate themselves and show I have the gravitas, if I look at this debate and I see what they're saying I can envision that person being my spokesperson as the leader of the free world.

Robinson: And if you're looking for gravitas, I think Huckabee had it a little bit last night, Ben Carson didn't play a major role in this campaign but there was a couple at his close and a question about black lives and that whole race debate, his answer was fantastic and where he rose above I think the rest of the field.

Henderson: And the other thing, Doug, you supported Mitt Romney in '07.

Gross: '08.

Henderson: And '08.


Whitaker: That's a long time.

Henderson: But let's think back to those debates. He ran the table in that first debate here in Iowa in 2007. Did you see somebody have a Mitt Romney moment and able to just dominate the big kids' debate?

Gross: No. No, I didn't at all. For most of them, as Dean says, to extend the metaphor, most of them this is the first time they had a chance to look at this product on the shelf and so they took their time educating them about all the accomplishments they had made during the course of their tenure in their states. And we had heard that many, many times in Iowa and that got a little old. But other than the fact that this was about Trump and how Trump was going to handle things, I don't think really any of them made this their debate. I think some of them did better than others but certainly nobody dominated that debate.

Whitaker: Dean, you mentioned how does this debate and what happened impact the ground game in Iowa? All 17 of those candidates need a win in Iowa or New Hampshire. And many of them are making a calculation, I'm going all in in Iowa or I'm going all in in New Hampshire. If you get to South Carolina and that is your Hail Mary moment or if you get into the SEC primary or Florida, some of these candidates really have to go all in and I think some of them are going all in in Iowa, Bobby Jindal is an example, my friend Rick Perry and others, Huckabee I think wants to redo the '08 magic that he experienced. And so I think no matter how this debate, the ground game in Iowa is still going to be the same. You’re still trying to organize and get people to the polls. One of the interesting candidates that I think was sort of in the middle but really did not do anything to hurt himself but I thought just looked good was Marco Rubio. I thought he just, he's young, he's a fresh face and I think he and Scott Walker that people don't have a lot of experience with, I think they're looking at them because they just want something new.

Gross: I think Marco Rubio had a really strong start in this debate where he really framed the debate the way he wanted to about the future versus the past and how him versus Hillary Clinton is by far the strongest matchup the republicans could have. That was very effective.

Robinson: But I think he's the guy who has to -- he's fighting on no turf right now and so he's a national candidate, like I think the polls and these debates want and demand, but he's a guy who has to say, where is he going to draw the line in the sand and say, I'm going to win? Is that Iowa? Is that New Hampshire? And I think he's struggling in both and so he has to pick one or the other. He has to commit to trying to win one of these early states.

Gross: They're really playing two different kind of games. They're playing this national game to try to get in this debate stage.

Robinson: And to raise money.

Gross: But at the same time they've got to win in Iowa or New Hampshire, as Matt says. In order to do that you have to organize. You have to convert this attention into organizational prowess in Iowa and a number of them are not doing that, Rubio being one.

Henderson: So, which one --

Robinson: Well, Rick Perry had a South Carolina firewall in 2012 and he didn't get there and that's why Matt's point is really spot on. You have to do well in either Iowa or New Hampshire, you can't say the third state is my firewall because we've seen time and time again, you've got to get there for that to matter.

Gross: Giuliani won in Florida remember.

Lynch: From a strategy standpoint, as I watched the debate I thought Rand Paul was smart when he jumped in really early without getting called on and called out Donald Trump. And then the exchange with Chris Christie got him a lot of attention too. But you're saying that neither one of them looked very presidential. So was that a win for him or was it --

Robinson: I thought Rand Paul probably satisfied his base, so that libertarian base by having those exchanges. I thought Christie probably looks better for it. I mean, Christie is the guy who is the 9th guy on the stage and he was given all this attention and the actual debate moments included him with these other candidates. So I thought Paul kind of had a sour demeanor last night.

Gross: I thought he was screechy.

Robinson: Screechy and his body language was really bad. If anyone didn't look presidential last night I think it was Rand Paul.

Gross: I agree with that.

Borg: Kay, we called it the debate format but it was really kind of a mass interview. As a journalist, how do you come down on the effectiveness of that type of event that we saw? We're calling it a debate and I'm trying to avoid calling it a debate.

Henderson: Well, the exchange between Chris Christie and Rand Paul was really the only time a debate actually broke out at the event. But as you talk to people and how they evaluate it, I think these candidates could have used the debate to reach beyond the base of support they currently have. And so I think as reporters we're trying to evaluate which one did that effectively. I think to Craig's point, Rand Paul satisfied his base but did he expand beyond that? Did Chris Christie expand beyond the people who love the fact that he is sort of the tamer Donald Trump? Did he go beyond that subset of people? And I think you've heard it through the past 24 hours after this debate has happened that Marco Rubio opened some eyes, he became a  second choice for a lot of people. And so I think the debate gave people a chance to say, I sort of like this person, I sort of like that person, oh gosh now he or she is on my radar. I thought it was interesting that among all of them, Carly Fiorina had the hutzpah to actually go after Donald Trump about the phone call from Bill Clinton. I mean, she was the one who was the most vociferous in challenging him as opposed to Megyn Kelly's challenge. Among the candidates she was the only one who did it directly.

Borg: Did she elevate herself at the event?

Whitaker: Here's what I keep hearing is there's a lot of people when they see Carly speak that they like her and when they meet her and her record of being a secretary in a seven, nine person real estate shop and working all the way to being HP CEO, that's an impressive resume. She clearly is a conservative, believes in the core principles of conservatism and everybody likes her. So far we haven't seen that turn into support, that there are other candidates that are getting support.

Robinson: I do think there will be a drum beat to get her into the next debate.

Whitaker: There will be.

Gross: Oh yeah, there already is.

Henderson: The other drum beat --

Gross: She was clearly a winner last night.

Henderson: The other drum beat is we don't have a Straw Poll and how are you going to winnow this field. Did this event winnow the field, Doug?

Gross: No, I think what it did is it allowed people to get back on the field, people like Christie and Rubio and Paul who was lagging, Kasich, it allowed him to get into the field, Carly, it allowed her to get into the field. So what it did is it actually I think expanded the effective field. And the difficulty we're going to have in this race is ever trying to pare it because all they need is a rich backer and they can stay in the race. The only reason Pawlenty, for example, got out after the last Straw Poll is because he was in debt by $600,000.

Borg: And what you're saying, Doug, is if we ever needed the Straw Poll, this is the year we need it.

Gross: Absolutely. I was not a big fan of the Straw Poll but I thought this is the year we needed one.

Whitaker: Absolutely.

Lynch: Doug, you said this allowed people to get back on the field. But for those people who were at the little kids' table, is it going to be pretty hard to go out to donors and go out to supporters and say, take me seriously, I can win in Iowa or I can win in New Hampshire? Does it make it a lot harder for them?

Gross: Perry or Jindal, they can still run in Iowa, they can run effectively in Iowa.

Robinson: I think if I was one of those candidates, besides Carly Fiorina who stole the show, if I was any of those other candidates, if I was Jindal, Santorum, Rick Perry and Lindsey Graham, I'd say you know what, I'm going to break the RNC rules here and we'll debate each other and we'll go county-to-county in Iowa and we'll put on our own show because I don't think they're going to -- jumping through these hoops isn't going to do them any good and so they should just break the rules, do it in states like Iowa and South Carolina and I think you would actually see them perform better.

Gross: But, James, the irony is even if they don't have a lot of popular support all they need is enough -- the only thing that gets them out of the race is money. These people are in the race because they think they can be president. They're not going to drop out unless they have to.

Whitaker: They look in the mirror and say, I should be president.

Lynch: You didn't mention Pataki.

Robinson: Right. Well, look -- let me talk about that. If there was one mistake that Fox News made it was that they changed their debate criteria for that pre-debate a week out. They got rid of the 1% threshold because they wanted Lindsey Graham in this debate. I understand that. But it opened the door for Pataki and it opened the door for Jim Gilmore and quite frankly I think we could have had a much better debate limited to four than seven.

Borg: Were there some issues that were opened last night -- I said that we've heard many of these rhetoric issue lines many times as Iowa has heard these candidates, we heard it again last night.

Whitaker: Dean, that's one of the things as I talk to people about this election is what is this election about? Is it a national security election? Is it an economic election? Is it a referendum on the current President and his record? And, to some extent, you see why we have so many candidates is they all represent various pieces and factions of the Republican Party, no one has been able to sort of capture a meaningful portion of that. And so until somebody can define this election and say this election is about national security or events cause this election to be defined, I think we're going to see these issues circulate around as kind of news of the day.

Borg: And what is going to define that? What is going to be the catalyst?

Gross: At the end of the day this campaign for republicans is going to be about who is the alternative to the last eight years? And Hillary is going to represent the last eight years. And so it's going to be who can effectively lay out a plan for the future that is a counterpoint to this country's experience for the last eight years.

Robinson: I actually think this is going to be -- this isn't just finding a republican nominee for the next presidential election. This is, who is the standard bearer for the party? What is the Republican Party going to be about? And who can lead us? And so I think we're looking for a leader of the party as much as we're looking just for the next nominee.

Lynch: Can the Republican Party be led as divided as it is? Can it be led?

Whitaker: It can. I mean, the Republican Party stands for a few big things that are usually encapsulated in sort of a belief in the sanctity of life, rugged individualism, free market enterprise, sort of the big things that republicans stand for, typically less government although our record has not usually demonstrated that core principle. And so I think these debates, and really the Fox News moderators asking very specific questions and drilling into Scott Walker's job creation record and some of these other things that they were able to just sort of get a really precise question in, I think it's going to help figure out who will lead. And republicans want to win. We're looking for a winner. And I think the electability question is very important in this race.

Gross: And at the end of the day, it is going to be about who can win. This party really wants to win and that's who will lead the party. And right now we haven't gotten really serious about that and we will as the months go on.

Borg: Kay, you mentioned the Straw Poll earlier, there is no Straw Poll this year but there is an event coming up in Waterloo at the Dairy Cattle Congress grounds, Electric Park Ballroom.

Henderson: Exactly. It harkens back to four years ago when Rick Perry arrived at this event as a triumphant front-runner. Craig, you were there.

Whitaker: Best three hours of my life.


Henderson: And, Matt Whitaker, you were supporting -- it was also the time at which Michele Bachmann's star started to fall.

Gross: They couldn't get her out of the RV.

Robinson: No, it was really awkward. I felt awkward and it didn't involve me.

Henderson: But this event will feature the return of Rick Perry and Bobby Jindal. What are you expecting from it?

Robinson: Well, look, that is actually an interesting battle there between the two because I don't think there's room for many challengers to rise up here and to break into this other field in Iowa. And so for Bobby Jindal -- I didn't think he did it in the pre-debate -- he has to come out and perform better than the guys who this is their second time running. He has to say, look, I'm new, I have fresh ideas, I'm the future, you guys ran in the past. I don't think he did that in the early debate on Thursday. And so this is another opportunity where he's going to go one-on-one against Rick Perry. He has to come out on top of that battle.

Henderson: Matt, you were on the Perry team last time around. You're not this time around.

Gross: He doesn't like the glasses.


Whitaker: Rick Perry is a friend of mine. I really like him. I'm doing some other things that don't allow me to participate in partisan politics.

Henderson: Will you be in Waterloo?

Whitaker: No. No I won't. I usually attend events around locally if I'm invited and find it interesting. I have found that I've given a lot of time to the party and it's time -- I'm enjoying a little bit of free time to myself.

Henderson: Doug, what does an event like this give a politician a chance to do? It's a small audience. Obviously it will be broadcast statewide, it won't be nationwide broadcast.

Gross: It allows them to connect with the key element of their voters. What we need to look at is something that frankly Craig talked about earlier, which is the caucus within the caucus, the debate within a debate. What we've got going on in Iowa right now is a very strong struggle for the Christian right and you saw that last night, you saw that with Cruz and Huckabee. I don't know how they could be more effective with that group than what they were and how they're going to decide who they're going to go with. So for a guy like Perry, he has to decide what's my lane? What are the definitions of that lane? And how do I effectively appeal to people within that lane? And right now I'm not sure where that is for him. I don't know that there exists one.

Whitaker: But every candidate is in Iowa, if Iowa is part of their strategy to be the nominee, is going to have to really boil it down to hand-to-hand combat. It is going to be the very tedious task of organizing and getting your people to the caucus. And I know that a lot of people based on what happened last time think you can run an air war and be competitive. It's turning into more like a primary but it's not, it's still getting your people to caucus.

Borg: Let's go back to the overall events, you said defining issues, were there -- anybody here answer this question, Jim -- were there statements made that we're going to see again and again because they were videotaped and they could be used against that candidate in a general election? What makes me ask that question is they have mentioned Huckabee and others defining themselves to the very far right.

Lynch: Yeah, I think we'll see more of this -- I think one of the things the debates do is they give opposition researchers a lot of material to work with. I think we're going to see Rand Paul's peevish face, his smirk. I think we'll see the exchange between Rand Paul and Chris Christie. Certainly if Trump continues in this we'll see his comments used against him.

Gross: Don't you think we're going to -- don't you think democrats if either Walker or Rubio are the nominee are going to play on the abortion issue?

Lynch: Yes.

Gross: No exceptions. They're clearly going to focus on that.

Lynch: How much did democrats get out of this debate? What did they get out of this debate?

Gross: Well they got that. I'm sure they were looking for something like that and they're both two of our top tier candidates. So that's certainly a possibility that they will use that in the future. The other thing that democrats get, I thought which was remarkable, is there was really not a full scale attack on Obama or Hillary. Instead we were focusing on each other or the moderators or somebody else.

Borg: Or Donald.

Gross: Or Donald Trump and Donald Trump tends to do that. That's why I think this was the Trump debate. I'm probably the only one here who believes this, but I think Trump got trumped last night. I think he fully showed the kind of person he is, that republicans will not go for at the end of the day. I think that was clear.

Robinson: That's because every question that Donald Trump was asked last night was a negative. He wasn't asked about issues. He was asked about his past, his failings, all of these things. And quite frankly, I don't necessarily think it's fair. If you're going to treat Donald Trump like that then you've got to ask Chris Christie about Bridgegate, you need to ask Rand Paul about the three close associates who are under indictment.

Henderson: And he brought it up himself at the very beginning when he talked about buying politicians and nobody jumped on it.

Gross: Craig, I disagree totally with that. People don't have any idea about what Donald Trump's positions are. If Jeb Bush would have been in favor of a single payer system, he would have been asked about a single payer system. If he said he was very pro-choice, he'd have been asked about being very pro-choice. Those were legitimate questions that needed to be asked.

Robinson: I'm not saying that some of them are not but like every single question was basically put him on the defensive, never could talk about an issue in terms of what he wants to do. And I just think that, again, I agree with you, Doug, that Fox News is the only one who could do that and Megyn Kelly specifically was the only one who could challenge because otherwise he's going to turn it on them and it's going to be this --

Whitaker: The format forced him to answer questions where he typically filibusters and bloviates and goes after the questioner instead of actually answering the question.

Borg: Let's just overall the event itself, and the events itself, it was more than a debate, it was show business.

Robinson: It was a reality TV show.

Gross: Dean, winning these debates, these national debates is always about performance and those candidates who aren't aware of the fact that their performance counts, lose. That's why how Paul looked was more important than what he said and as a result he didn't help himself.

Whitaker: Optics, optics are so important in these debates. And, listen, people want to be entertained. Our short attention span demands short answers and entertainment and flash.

Gross: And we were entertained last night.

Borg: Thanks for your insights. And we'll be back with another edition of Iowa Press next Friday night, 7:30 on Friday night and noon on Sunday. I'm Dean Borg. Thanks for joining us today. 

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