Elected Officials, Political Strategists React to First GOP Debate

By Michael Aron
Chief Political Correspondent

Some of the state’s best-known officials and political strategists assembled for the watch party at NJTV headquarters last night.

Gov. Chris Christie’s first question was familiar turf to this crowd — how does he explain New Jersey’s poor economic numbers?

“If you think it’s bad now you should have seen it when I got there. Fact is,” Christie said.

He delivered the litany of numbers and arguments he’s been using for months.

“And what’s happened since? One hundred ninety-two thousand new private sector jobs in the five and a half years I’ve been governor. We have a lot of work to do in New Jersey, but I am darn proud of how we’ve brought our state back, Christie said.

At the commercials, we got reaction.

“A lot of talking points tonight. These guys are very rehearsed, they’ve been practicing all week for this moment but not a lot or originality. Very rehearsed, talking points, Marco Rubio — he’s a phony,” said Steve Ayscue.

“Well, I certainly was impressed with Gov. Christie’s first answer. I can’t wait to see him get on the open field. I’m going to be very excited to see him get in with a question that he can get some meat out there for him,” said Scott Rumana.

John Kasich had fielded a question about expanding Medicaid under Obamacare.

“Kasich actually did a fantastic job with his question. It was a , from the standpoint of Republicans, kind of a nasty question but he turned it around pretty well,” said David Redlawsk.

Christie kind of disappeared after that until Megyn Kelly brought up domestic surveillance and Christie’s longstanding criticism of Rand Paul on that issue.

“I was appointed Attorney General by President Bush on September 10, 2001 and the world changed enormously the next day. And it happened in my state — this is not theoretical to me. I went to the funerals. We lost friends of ours in the Trade Center that day. My own wife was two blocks from the Trade Center that day at her office having gone through it that morning. When you actually have to be responsible for doing this, you can do it, and we did it for seven years in my office respecting civil liberties and protecting the homeland,” Christie said.

“I want to collect more records from terrorists but less records from innocent Americans,” Paul said.

“That’s a completely ridiculous answer. I want to collect more records from terrorists, but less records from other people. How are you supposed to know, Megyn? Listen senator, when you’re sitting in a subcommittee just blowing hot air about this, you can say things like that. When you’re responsible for protecting the lives of American people then what you need to do is to make sure that you use the system the way it’s supposed to work,” Christie said.

“Here’s the problem, governor. You fundamentally misunderstand the Bill of Rights. Every time you did a case you got a warrant from a judge. I’m talking about searches without warrants, indiscriminately of all American’s records — that’s what I fought to end — I don’t trust President Obama with our records. I know you gave him a big hug, and if you want to give him a big hug again — go right ahead,” Paul said.

“You know Senator Paul, the hugs that I remember are the hugs I gave to the families who lost their people on September 11. Those are the hugs that I remember,” Christie said.

“This is like the Super Bowl for Republican political junkies. It doesn’t get any better than this. I don’t want this to end,” said Assemblyman Jon Bramnick.

“I think it’s the same Chris Christie we’ve seen all along, he’s telling it like it is,” said Amanda Woloshin.

“Trump is a disaster. Hopefully our party will come to it’s senses because if Trump is our candidate we will lose on a scale that McGovern lost,” said Bob Yudin.

“I think our governor actually got the question he needed and he owned the question. I think the back and forth with Rand Paul was outstanding for him,” said Bill Caruso.

The focus kept shifting back to Donald Trump, who was acerbic and colorful.

“First of all these lenders aren’t babies. These are total killers, OK, these are not the nice, sweet little people that you think, OK, ” Trump said.

When asked if Trump is starting to seem plausible, Philip Alagia said, “I think he’s starting to seem less plausible. I think he’s saying what people want to hear but, to me, he’s not coming across as presidential.”

“I think Fox is doing a really good job. I think they’re being tough on these candidates which I think some people may be surprised by. And I think there’s a few candidates standing out. I think Marco Rubio’s standing out. I think Governor Christie’s done a good job,” said Chris Russell.

“I like my governor. My governor is fighting when he has to fight. He rolled up his sleeves and throw a punch when he needs to. At the same time he’s been well-behaved when he though had to be well-behaved and I think that shows his diplomacy,” said Assemblyman Robert Auth.

Christie and Mike Huckabee disagreed on Christie’s proposal to means-test Social Security and Medicare.

“Governor Huckabee says he can save Social Security and Medicare without doing any of that, is he lying?” asked Chris Wallace.

“No, he’s not lying. He’s just wrong. So there’s a difference. Listen, I’m the only guy on this stage who’s put out a detailed 12-point plan on entitlement reform and here’s why: because 71 percent of federal spending right now is on entitlements and debt services. 71 percent. And we have spent the last hour and five minutes talking out the other 29 percent…If we don’t deal with this problem it will bankrupt our county or lead to massive tax increases, neither one that we want in this country,” Christie said.

“Whose fault is it that the system is screwed up? Is it the recipients or is it the government? If congress wants to mess with the retirement program, why don’t we let them start by changing their retirement program and not have one instead of talking about getting rid of Social Security and Medicare,” Huckabee said. ” I just think it’s fundamentally lying to the people and stealing from them and we shouldn’t be doing it.”

“I don’t disagree with ending congress’ retirement program. I’m a governor, I don’t have a retirement program in my state, and I don’t disagree with that. But here’s the news for the American people, he’s complaining about the lying and stealing. The lying and stealing has already occurred, the trust fund is filled with IOUs. We can’t fix this problem just by ending congress’ retirement, that’s worth about this much,” Christie said.

At the next break we kicked it around.

At the start of the evening our guests ranked the candidates from first place to tenth, with Jeb Bush in first followed by Kasich, Marco Rubio and Christie in fourth. After the debate, they ranked them again. Kasich and Christie moved up to one and two. Bush slipped from one to four.

So, who won?

“When you have that many people on the stage I don’t think anybody wins. I’m looking for a good result from our governor and I think we got it,” Bramnick said.

“I think Fox News won tonight. I can’t imagine their rating aren’t through the roof,” Woloshin said.

“The questions were great. The Fox News anchors did a fantastic job. Governor Christie was actually very good. There was feeling like you didn’t see him very much,” Redlawsk said.

“The governor did very well. I wish he could have had more time,” Yudin said.

“Tonight there was a Super Bowl feeling in the room that this was a big event, that this was must-see TV,” Alagia said.

“I think that the debate format played really well, the moderators did a really good job. I think Governor Christie did a good job. I think the back and forth between him and Rand Paul will get a lot of secondary play post-debate,” Caruso said.

“I thought Rubio did a great job. I think Kasich did. I think Christie did. I thought Ted Cruz did. And I thought Jeb Bush did a decent job. I thought Trump was lackluster and I think it’s going to hurt him,” Russell said.

“I thought all the candidates performed very well this evening. I think all of them would serve as a great position in the Christie administration when he becomes President, even Donald Trump,” Auth said.

“What we’re seeing right now on social media is that Donald Trump is still number one in terms of Google searches and what’s trending right now after this debate,” Brendan Gill said.

“In the end Jeb Bush was the biggest loser. He looked tense, disappointed that he even had to be on the stage in a contest at all. He wanted to be crowned the position of the nominee and I think he’s the loser tonight. John Kasich actually came across pretty nice, he had good answers I though. Governor Christie did a very good job,” Ayscue said.

The next debate — and the next watch party — are on September 16.