Frank Pignanelli & LaVarr Webb: Second GOP debate highlights some substance, endless entertainment

Thursday's Republican debate was the culmination of one of the strangest summers in American politics — and the weirdness will likely continue. Although Donald Trump’s success demonstrates that the talking heads (like us) don't have a clue, being wrong is no reason not to share our opinions.

Trump doesn't play well in Utah. However, did this debate demonstrate he will be a factor at least the first several primaries in 2016?

Pignanelli: “Get every candidate to wear a NASCAR racing suit when they go debate; this way we can see who their sponsors really are.” — Jesse Ventura

A strange combination of tagteam wrestling and musical chairs best describes the second presidential debate. The moderators tapped candidates to attack or defend against one of the other contenders and whoever was left out after a round of arguments was presumed fatally wounded. The process moved discussions along and allowed ample time for participants to pummel the current GOP bogeymen (President Barack Obama, illegal immigrants, Vladmir Putin, the Ayatollahs, etc.)

Thursday evening was not as much fun as the August party, but more efficient in culling the herd. Trump survived, while Govs. Mike Huckabee and Scott Walker, along with Sen. Rand Paul, are on life support. The political intelligentsia is heaping praise on Carly Fiorina, extending her momentum. Govs. Jeb Bush and Chris Christie satisfied demands by supporters and politicos for more enthusiasm and feistiness.

Essentially, presidential aspirants were judged how they sparred with Trump. So his persona will remain a factor for months. Regardless if Trump drops out early, success in the primaries may be determined by who is perceived the inheritor of his message and supporters.

Few individuals are more unlike any Utahn than “The Donald,” but the boisterous billionaire is impacting our national politics.

Webb: Sensible people recognize that Trump was a big loser in the debate and is not fit to be America’s president. He outlined no thoughtful public policy positions. He became a wallflower during substantive discussions on foreign affairs and key domestic issues. He was his usual bullying, bombastic, erratic self. All talk, no substance.

However, while most Utahns are rational about politics, I can’t predict the results of the national post-debate polls. Some angry grass-roots conservatives seem to like a carnival huckster who tells them what they want to hear and channels their resentment toward the establishment.

Eventually, they will realize that Trump is not conservative, has no underlying principles, and will not be able to solve the nation’s problems just by saying he can. The flirtation may continue into the new year, but it will eventually flame out.

Post-debate, who are the Republican candidates to watch?

Pignanelli: Fiorina will continue to tap into the movement that is rejecting mainstream candidates. Trump’s critique that Bush is low-energy may define the Florida governor unless he alters his persona. Sen. Marco Rubio's charisma and Sen. Ted Cruz’s fearlessness could be the natural successors of the Trump phenomenon.

The words "Republicans” and "fun" are rarely used in the same sentence without a “not.” But this election season GOP leaders are collectively and individually more entertaining than any Democrat. Thank goodness.

Webb: The Republicans have five really excellent candidates who did well in the debate, including Carly Fiorina, Marco Rubio, Jeb BushJohn Kasich and Chris Christie. All of them are far superior to Democrats Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden. If the eventual GOP nominee can avoid alienating mainstream voters by veering too far to the right, we can elect a Republican president next year.

Like most other observers, I thought Fiorina was terrific in the debate. Rubio and Bush did very well, and Christie and Kasich were impressive. Ben Carson is a very nice man, but lacks the depth and substance to be president. Paul is too isolationist, Cruz is scary right-wing, and Mike Huckabee and Scott Walker are just not catching on.

Conventional wisdom is that after flirting with unorthodox candidates, voters in both parties will eventually embrace a mainstream candidate. Is this the year that tradition is upended?

Pignanelli: The Democrats enjoyed a large selection of establishment contenders in the 2008 election-and all were rejected. So a precedent exists. If Secretary of State Hillary Clinton continues to encounter email issues and other perception problems, mainstream Democrats may stay home and open opportunities for the truly unorthodox — Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, etc.

Webb: Eventually, after a few flings with the flavors of the month, both Republicans and Democrats will want to nominate someone who can win the general election. Sanders, obviously, could never win the general election. We’re not a socialist country. Trump, Cruz and Paul could never win a general election. It would be really nice if Republicans would rally around a candidate early and focus attacks on Democrats instead of each other, but that would be far too sensible.