We were all wondering if it could live up to the hype – and it did. And then some.

Thurday evening’s two-hour event in Cleveland exceeded all expectations. Each of the candidates did extremely well in their own right. With ten candidates on stage, and seven appearing earlier this evening, we heard about a wide variety of policy positions, various records in the Senate or as governors and, for each, we got insight into their unique style to not only debating, but tackling critical issues.

 

For the first time in as long as I can remember, I strongly feel that there were no real losers in tonight’s debate. The quality of the conversation and, overall, the level of respect that each candidate showed to the others, highlighted the potential for the Republican party to rise above much of the divisiveness that has haunted them in recent elections.

Indeed, I believe that tonight’s debate elevates the Republican party as a whole.

Republicans should be proud. They’ve got a bunch of good candidates, as Rubio noted himself. And they treated each other – and the voters they’re trying to win over – respectfully.

There was clear appeal to the more conservative side of the base on social issues – abortion was a hot topic – as well as the importance of a strong military to not only combat ISIS but to also restore America’s place in the world as a global leader. We heard about the importance of a pro-growth agenda from Governors John Kasich, Scott Walker and Jeb Bush who all added thousands of jobs while in office.

We also heard about the importance of moving our country forward, not backwards from Marco Rubio: a note that he has hits regularly, but means a lot to a country that doesn’t want to elect another Bush or Clinton.

Donald Trump was clearly the featured candidate, with all eyes on him and tremendous anticipation as to whether he was going to follow through on his pledge to be civilized and only to attack if attacked.

Trump showed that he is clearly ready for prime time. His responses to questions on immigration, his business background, bankruptcy and change in position on issue likes health care and the pro-life/pro-choice debate showed him to be a pragmatist above all else. And that’s something that resonates with voters.

The latest Fox poll showed that Americans are considered with leadership above all else – even Conservative values. It follows that Trump’s approach is right on target. And he didn’t let down his supporters this evening.

To my mind, Rubio and Kasich were both incredibly impressive. Rubio has been slipping in the polls lately because of Trump and believe he will win back some support after this performance wherein he showed Americans what his vision of a strong, generous America looks like.

Kasich showed us all why he deserved to be up there Thursday night. He touted an impressive record in Ohio where he created jobs, balanced budgets, worked with Democrats and made smart decisions for all his constituents. He spoke meaningfully about pulling people out of the shadows and appealing to minorities and immigrants. For Kasich, offering the chance to Americans to move up in society is his top priority and with 40% of the electorate saying that the economy is the most important issue to them, his message will strike a cord.

We didn’t hear anything particularly new from Ted Cruz, but he was surely an effective right wing advocate. I believe that he will emerge as the clear leader of the right and with good reason.

Bush was steady and not particularly dynamic, but I don’t think he will lose his standing at the top of the heap as a result of this evening. He made clear, repeatedly, that he governed conservatively and showed that through his record. If viewers were watching with an open mind – and I believe they were – he may have won some votes from those who think him to be too liberal because of his stance on immigration. Tonight can only benefit him.

Christie and Walker didn’t hurt themselves. And neither did Huckabee or Paul. Ben Carson had a few good quips, but wasn’t generally very persuasive, especially as an outsider candidate in comparison to Trump. But we saw that coming.

The overall takeaway from this evening is that Republicans should be proud. They’ve got a bunch of good candidates, as Rubio noted himself. And they treated each other – and the voters they’re trying to win over – respectfully.

This only stands to help the Republicans as candidates and as a party. It also means that their strong showing proves that the only real loser was the Democrats and Hillary Clinton more specifically. It’s going to be a long, tough battle.  

Douglas E. Schoen has served as a pollster for President Bill Clinton. He has more than 30 years experience as a pollster and political consultant. He is also a Fox News contributor and co-host of "Fox News Insiders" Sundays on Fox News Channel at 7 pm ET. He is the author of 13 books. His latest is "Putin's Master Plan" (Encounter Books, September 27, 2016). Follow Doug on Twitter @DouglasESchoen.