What follows are my personal impressions of the initial 2016 debate. I've tried to fairly assign each candidate a letter grade based solely upon the night's performance, not my personal advocacy/animosity level for the candidate.
Jeb Bush: D
In what was a surprisingly awful performance, Jeb looked like a deer in the headlights on multiple occasions. In person, Jeb's tall and imposing; but on the debate stage he looked small and weak. His attempt to bolster his prior, bizarre comments on illegal immigration, especially in the wake of Kate Steinle's murder, was a rambling, hot mess.
Ben Carson: B-
Carson is an appealing candidate who appeared overwhelmed at the beginning of the debate and then seemed to find his footing as the night wore on. His likable personality is both tempered and bolstered by the fact that he's not a professional politician.
Chris Christie: B-
His personal appearance is likely problematic for audiences used to attractive candidates like Obama, Paul, and Fiorina. Christie's fiery response to Rand Paul was arguably the best comeback of the night; he also reacted commendably to a tough opening question about a sequence of debt downgrades in the state of New Jersey.
Ted Cruz: A-
His polished debate skills were in full effect with powerful concepts expressed concisely and passionately. There is no question Cruz is a first-tier candidate and the thinking man's version of Donald Trump, the quintessential anti-establishment candidate.
Mike Huckabee: A
His vast television experience showed; Huckabee was polished and professional.
John Kasich: B-
Kasich appeared a bit over-rehearsed and shopworn. Curiously, for an experienced broadcast professional (a former Fox News analyst), some of his responses were rambling and unfocused.
Rand Paul: C
Paul got the worst end of a rhetorical scrap with Christie, bearing the brunt of a critique as a blowhard politican and not a man of action. Paul's passion showed in a somewhat raw and unpresidential way; worst of all, his weakness on foreign policy in a field of hawks was an unvarnished negative.
Marco Rubio: C
Personal affectations aside (just some odd mannerisms I noticed, in the genre of his well-known sip of a water bottle), Rubio comes off less as a first-tier candidate than I'd anticipated. His eloquence was offset by a posture of uncertainty, which manifests itself in an apparent lack of confidence.
Donald Trump: B
Donald was, eh, Donald. His head-on, counterattack against a confrontational Megyn Kelly, who essentially accused him of blatant misogyny, probably won him as many fans as he lost. But his refusal to renounce a third-party run could dampen enthusiasm among those who see the country being badly damaged by another Democrat president. And that's precisely what a third-party run would mean.
Scott Walker: B
His lack of charisma was almost astonishing, given his track record. Walker came off as so unassuming and laid back that he almost appeared to be a holographic projection. But Walker demeanor is also a benefit in some respects, coming off as an everyman -- rather than the scripted, Hollywood-style politician to which we've become accustomed.
Related: Must-See Late Night Clip: Conan Mocks the ‘Other’ GOP Debate.