Donald Trump has courted controversy with his outspoken views on immigration and fellow Republicans, but the billionaire businessman may have been too reserved in his first GOP presidential primary debate, a former aide to then-President George H.W. Bush said Friday.
"Donald Trump may have lost as many as 10 points some of my friends think," Joe Watkins told CNBC's "Squawk Box." "Donald Trump is best when he is unfiltered, and he wasn't as unfiltered last night as I thought he might be."
Much of the attention in the first GOP presidential debate of the 2016 campaign was on Trump, who has rocketed to the top of the polls. Before Thursday night's debate, Trump commanded a 21 to 26 percent lead in a number of polls, according to Real Clear Politics.
Trump has both come under fire and surged in polls after saying many Mexican immigrants in the United States are criminals and rapists and insisting that Republican Sen. John McCain, who was a prisoner of war in Vietnam, was not a hero.
But that brashness was not on display Thursday night, Watkins said. He noted that Trump articulated his opposition to the Iran nuclear deal instead of offering an incendiary response to a question regarding the reported meeting between an Iranian general and Moscow in violation of U.N. sanctions.
Still, the other candidates showed they are a little afraid of Trump and were "fawning" over him, said Sara Fagen, former political director for George W. Bush. She noted that Sen. Ted Cruz "awkwardly" hugged him during a commercial break and Ohio Gov. John Kasich acknowledged the spirit Trump has captured within the Republican party.
However, she said she doesn't expect Trump's lead to last.
"Ultimately I think he's going to do two or three more of these debates and he will likely not have much substance like he did not last night, and ultimately that will catch up with him," she told "Squawk Box." "But for now he puts on an incredible show."
Fagen said governors did very well on Thursday, while senators did not stand out. While Sen. Marco Rubio got in some good lines, Sens. Ted Cruz and Rand Paul had a "tough night," she said.
Following her performance in an earlier debate for lower-polling candidates, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina will likely be talked about as a vice presidential candidate or Republican presidential nominee campaign chair, Fagen said.
Watkins said former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush did a good job of setting himself apart from his father and brother, the 41st and 43rd presidents. Watkins also said New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie likely advanced "a little bit" while most of the candidates didn't move the chains.
"For the most part, I didn't see anyone knock the ball out of the park," he said.
Former Democratic Rep. Harold Ford said Rubio stood out because he was the first Republican candidate who embraced a narrative about the future versus the past.
"The future-versus-past argument in any presidential race is always the most formidable argument," he told "Squawk Box." "Any candidate that is able to talk about the future and embody it the best ... is the candidate that has the best chance."
Trump's pessimistic language about the state of the country resonates at times, but Americans typically elect "happy warriors" and "those who are optimistic," said Ford, a Morgan Stanley executive.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich also scored some points on that front, while former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Rubio likely appealed to Trump supporters, Ford said.