The Republican presidential debate Thursday night found an audience as entertained as they were informed.
Of course, Donald Trump helped shape that take away with his presence on the debate stage.
“Trump was true to form,” said Debra Pilgrim, chairwoman of the Hall County Republican Party. “I don’t think there were any surprises there.”
When members of the local GOP gathered for a watch party in Gainesville, Trump was the winner of a pre-debate straw poll, and tied for first with Rand Paul in a post-debate poll.
But Trump’s rhetoric did catch a few conservatives off guard. For example, his unwillingness to agree to support whoever the Republican nominee is drew some rebuke from the party line.
“We’ll see what that does to him eventually,” Pilgrim said.
Trump’s presence was noticeable to those on the other side of the political aisle, too.
“They’ve let Trump really kind of monopolize the whole thing,” said Sheila Nicholas, chairwoman of the Hall County Democratic Party.
A few of the Republican heavyweights didn’t gain much traction with a local audience, however. For example, Jeb Bush and Chris Christie polled poorly in each straw poll during the watch party.
“At first I really thought that Bush came out stumbling. I think he’s gotten a little better, but I don’t see him as being the face of the Republican Party,” Nicholas said.
But it’s too early to write either candidate off. Both have name-brand recognition, and may do better in a general election setting versus a primary election scene, where the voting base is more interested in red-meat rhetoric.
Pilgrim said Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Mike Huckabee and Scott Walker all polled well, with some improving during the debate. In all, there are 17 declared GOP candidates.
“Ultimately, we have a deep bench of candidates,” Pilgrim added. “We just don’t know. We’ve never seen anything like this. It does give people a lot of choice.”
And who knows what other candidates might throw their hat in the ring in the coming months, or what issues will be hot-button topics when voters go to the polls next year?
“It’s so early,” Nicholas said.