Mainstream media surprised by Republican debate as Rubio, Cruz, Fiorina score

What can best be described as Hunger Games: Parts I and II” kicked off with more than three full hours of GOP debate in Cleveland Thursday and with more action and drama than the movies by the same name.

In the main debate, casino mogul Donald Trump ran into a buzzsaw of tough questions and quickly found himself flailing wounded on center stage.

Republican senator responds #GOPDebate

Fox News’ anchor Bret Baier started that debate off with a blockbuster question asking if any candidate would refuse support for another GOP nominee. Trump was the only one to raise his hand and say he would consider running as a third-party candidate. The crowd rained boos on him as a result.

While Trump had some effective answers throughout, he also looked mean when questioned about comments he had made disparaging women. Moderator Megyn Kelly, asked Trump about adjectives he’s used to disparage women. “You’ve called women you don’t like fat pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animals.” Trump’s sarcastic response saying they were only for liberal actress Rosie O’Donnell didn’t help dig him out.

Ultimately, liberals were unhappy, which means the GOP did something right.

But Trump did recover, complaining that “the big problem this country has is being politically correct,” he responded.

Where Trump faltered, conservative Sens. Marco Rubio, Fla., and Ted Cruz, Tex., were more than happy to take advantage. Rubio was consistent throughout the debate conjuring up great images for a future America and being tough when needed. At one point bashing Planned Parenthood, Rubio emphasized his pro-life record and said: “Generations will look back at us and call us barbarians” for abortion.

When asked about God, Rubio gave a comment that fit his evening’s theme: “God has blessed the Republican Party with some very good candidates. The Democrats can’t even find one.”

Cruz wasn’t to be outdone, drawing more Google search attention than anyone. He told viewers the “We need a commander in chief that speaks the truth. We will not defeat radical Islamic terrorism so long as we have a president unwilling to utter the words, radical Islamic terrorism.” Cruz scored big with Frank Luntz’s debate watchers, too, who loved that comment.

While the top candidates from Zones 1 and 2 ripped each other apart, the earlier debate held out for and found a hero(ine).

The debate, nicknamed #kidstable on Twitter, was led by former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina who put on her best Katniss Everdine performance. All she needed was a bow and to turn her criticism of Hillary to “President Snow” and the image would have been complete. Like the Jennifer Lawrence character, Fiorina wiped up the floor with her competitors.

Fiorina earned her plaudits with tough, prepared statements and her own use of filibuster. Viewers of the New Hampshire non-debate would have seen much of what she said, but only locals and wonks watched both. (Hint: I’m not a local.)

Abby Huntsman, daughter of former Utah Republican governor and presidential candidate Jon Huntsman and recently canned MSNBC host, was complimentary of the lone GOP woman. “Carly Fiorina would have done well on the main stage tonight,” she wrote on Twitter. Time Washington Buresau Chief Michael Scherer noted how Fiorina kept mentioning what she would do in the White House on “Day 1” or “Day 2.” “On Day 3, Carly Fiorina will rest,” he snarked.

The National Journal’s Ron Fournier was in the Carly Camp, too. “Best performance (that’s what this is about, right?): #Carly2016.”

Even The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza gave her props. “I guarantee you someone (or someones) in the 9 pm debate will be less polished than Fiorina.”

CNBC politics writer John Harwood summed up Fiorina’s success as well as anyone. “Is that @CarlyFiorina or @RondaRousey thrashing those dudes?”

Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry both did well and provided one of the more humorous Internet moments. Perry started slow, when asked about preparation he didn’t seem prepared. But he recovered to finish strong. Huntsman was also positive about the bespectacled Perry. “The glasses were clearly what Rick Perry needed to prove he’s ready to play again. He’s been very strong tonight. #GOPDebate.”

Of course, Perry also mispronounced Ronald Reagan’s name as “Raven,” generating some fun on Twitter including this vine. Liberal Slate produced “The Ronald Raven Name Generator.” (My name Rick Perrified is “Dan Greenfinch” for those dying to know.)

Off course, none of that mattered to the major media who chose hometown Gov. John Kasich as the winner. The Cleveland crowd was strong for their governor, but Kasich won over the media with a gay-friendly answer. Business Insider called it “a touching answer” The New York Times said, “John Kasich Wins Points on Gay Marriage Answer.”

None of the outlets seemed to care that this was the Republican primary and not notoriously pro-gay marriage. Nate Silver, of 538 blog, predicted media support would flow to Kasich. “Just check his glowing Twitter mentions from members of the press corps: The media horde is likely to declare John Kasich the winner of the debate. For viewers at home, he’s not as much of a standout, at least based on his middling Google search traffic. But the post-debate spin often matters more than the reality.”

ABC News Chief White House Correspondent Jonathan Karl predictably complied. “The winner? @JohnKasich. Home field advantage helped and he made the most of it,” he Tweeted.

While conservative voters likely didn’t pick Kasich for the top spot, the top debate featured no other serious gaffes and high points for retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.

The earlier debate was much different. Fiorina came in first, with Perry second and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal a distant third. Sen. Lindsey Graham seem entirely off his game and several people on Twitter said so. National Review Senior Editor Jonah Goldberg remarked, “Seriously, did Graham get some horrible news before he walked on stage? He seems so sad.” It was hard to tell if former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore was even awake.

Humorous highlights included Huckabee discussing a tax on “illegals, prostitutes, pimps, drug dealers, all the people that are freeloading off the system now.” Journalism futurist Jeff Jarvis described that as, “Huckabee invents the pimp tax.” And after Trump talked about paying Hillary Clinton to attend his daughter’s wedding, actress Elizabeth Banks (Effie from “Hunger Games”) tweeted, “BTW, if anybody wants to donate a crap ton of money to me, I also like weddings.”

The Surprise Winner Is…

Fox News sponsored the two-part debate, letting a combination of polls pick the top 10 candidates. Fox (Spoiler Alert: Fox News also runs Shocker, I know) ended up taking center stage itself, earning stunned comments for tough questions in both debates.

Simon Maloy, a political writer for liberal Salon, noted that the first debate began with tough questions. “[E]every question has been “this is how you suck. your response?” The second debate was even tougher with Fox shocking the media world by making Republicans answer tough questions.

The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza, joked about buying the debate if it “was a pay-per-view for $19.99.” Mashable actually said, “Fox News won the GOP debate.” Buzzfeed Editor Ben Smith credited Fox News President Roger Ailes as “clearly the winner of this.” Liberal Huffington Post headlined its front page simply: “Ailes 2016.”

The respect flowed from the journalistic community, especially for moderator and host Megyn Kelly. Roll Call/CQ reporter Steven Dennis commented, “Megyn Kelly bringing the heat tonight.” New York Times magazine contributing writer Julia Ioffe gave her similar props. “Megyn Kelly is kicking serious wedge issue.” And @CNNPolitics Breaking News Editor Rebekah Metzler declared,“Megyn Kelly is winning this debate so far #GOPDebate.” NPR’s Eric Deggans noted Kelly gave, “the question of the night to Trump, referencing his past liberal views: “when did you become a Republican?”

Even sometime journalist and full-time presidential daughter Chelsea Clinton was complimentary. “They’re doing a great job. Raising the quality of debate,” she said of the Fox debate team.

Of course, why worry about a presidential election when journalists want to say goodbye to lefty hero Jon Stewart?

Naturally, journos were concerned. Editor Ezra Klein worried that if the debate might run long and be “Fox News’s revenge on Jon Stewart is going to be keeping the debate going right through his finale show.”

Washington Post media reporter Paul Farhi echoed Klein, wondering, “Is the debate over-run Fox’s way of messing up Jon Stewart’s finale?”

Ultimately, liberals were unhappy, which means the GOP did something right. Unlike Stewart, the GOP debate is coming back for another round, just like the Hunger Games sequels. If it’s as good as this one, it will be must-see TV. Wonder what the Democrats will do to compete?

Dan Gainor is the Media Research Center’s Vice President for Business and Culture. He writes frequently about media for Fox News Opinion. He can also be contacted on Facebook and Twitter as dangainor.