The first Republican primary debate of the 2008 cycle took place on a spring night the year prior, at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California. The stage was crowded, as tonight's will be, with ten candidates. The moderators peppered them with questions about the Iraq War, abortion, and evolution. Rudy Giuliani struggled with the difference between Sunni and Shiite, and John McCain told the moderator that he believed in evolution—but that he also believes "the hand of God is there also."
Afterward, the winner was clear: Mitt Romney. He topped public opinion polls and received glowing commentary in the mainstream media. "If we view the proceedings in vulgar and reductive Who Won, Who Lost terms, and let's, Mitt Romney won,” Peggy Noonan wrote in the Wall Street Journal. Chris Cillizza wrote in the Washington Post that Romney "stood out with clear and crisp answers—showing flashes of humor and an ease with the important issues.”
Despite this, Mitt Romney did not end up onstage in Saint Paul, Minnesota, a year later to accept the Republican nomination for president. It was McCain.
As the media parses every minute of the first Republican debate on Thursday in Cleveland, take their commentary (including this magazine's) with a grain of salt. A lot will change as candidates race from Iowa to New Hampshire to South Carolina and, next July, back to Cleveland for the party's convention. If history is any judge, the results of this debate, the first of six, will matter very little in the end.
Consider the first Republican debates in the last three open primaries. In 2000, frontrunner George W. Bush chose not to participate in the first televised debate—he had already arranged to speak at a fundraiser—and the five candidates on stage in Durham, New Hampshire, that night spent more time attacking Bush for his decision rather than attacking each other. Alan Keyes lamented the "arrogance being displayed by the Bush people" who believed that “somehow we all ought to bow down to him.” There was no clear winner, according to the pundits. And even though Bush had refused to participate, he was still at the top of the Republican field in polls.
The first Republican debate eight years later was a different story. Shortly after it concluded, Roger Simon wrote in Politico, “It would be terribly irresponsible to pick a winner of Thursday night's Republican debate. So I will. I think Mitt Romney won." Cillizza wrote that Romney “stood out with clear and crisp answers—showing flashes of humor and an ease with the important issues.” Noonan wrote, “In the mysterious way that some people seem to dominate, he dominated."
Romney took a different approach to the first Republican debate of the 2012 cycle, hosted by Fox News on May 5, 2011. Like George W. Bush in 2000, he chose not to participate in the debate, leaving the stage to five contenders. The winner? Herman Cain, according to a Fox focus group.