The Republican presidential debate will be remembered as The Donald Trump show, a fitting if troubling showcase for what the party faces as the attention-grabbing real estate mogul dominates its 2016 campaign.
Trump got the laughs, boos, cheers and attention from the start. He remained the political phenomenon who can’t be defined, and can’t be shamed. One minute he offended women. A few minutes later, he was the voice of the fed up American earning praise from the governor of Ohio.
Trump’s performance at Thursday’s two hour debate at Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena may not curb the momentum that’s carried him to the top of the Republican field. But he didn’t do much to expand his support, either, and likely emboldened his sizable corps of enemies with his defense of calling women names such as pig and dog.
The businessman had moments unlike any seen in recent presidential debates, and his quips and insults made it difficult for a more serious, substance-laden debate to occur. Only John Kasich, the governor of Ohio, Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey, and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky were able to break through.
Kasich scored by demonstrating he understood Trump’s appeal. “He’s hitting a nerve. People are frustrated. They’re fed up,” Kasich said. Trump wants to build a wall to keep undocumented immigrants from coming into this country from Mexico? “Mr. Trump is touching a nerve because people want the wall to be built,” he said.
Christie took on Paul in the night’s best candidate-to-candidate exchange. There was political payoff for both men, whose campaigns have been stuck.
Paul aggressively defended his effort to toughen laws against government spying on private citizens. “I want to collect more records from terrorists,” he said, “but less records from innocent Americans.”
Christie, a former prosecutor, accused Paul of “sitting in a subcommittee, just blowing hot air about this.”
Others were barely noticed.
Scott Walker, the governor of Wisconsin, tried hard to recite his record as governor but often seemed forgotten. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas offered his own brand of outrage, but couldn’t match Trump. Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson was his genial self, with some nice moments describing what it means to be a brain surgeon.
Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor, made it clear early he was his own man, but rarely got to show how. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida tried to establish his new generation credentials. Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas, peppered the night with pithy ways of describing his views on abortion and President Barack Obama’s Iran deal (“trust but verify”), but likely failed to pick up much mainstream support.
The star of the night was the former “Celebrity Apprentice” host. Trump set the tone early when moderate Bret Baier asked for pledges of support for the eventual Republican nominee and a promise not to launch an independent bid.
Trump wouldn’t rule out a third party bid. Some in the audience booed, some cheered. Baier zeroed in.
“If I am the nominee, I will pledge I will not run as an independent,” a playful Trump said. Paul interrupted. “This is what’s wrong,” said Paul.
And away they went.
Within minutes, moderator Megyn Kelly reminded Trump he’s called woman fat pigs, dogs, slobs and worse. “Only Rosie O’Donnell,” Trump said of the television personality he’s long feuded with.
Trump recovered later. Asked for evidence to back his claim that Mexico sends criminals across the American border, Trump’s defense was that border patrol officials told him so.
The problem, Trump said, is that “our leaders are stupid. Our politicians are stupid. And the Mexican government is much smarter, much more cunning.”
He was expressing the frustrations of many people in the party. Just like he was expressing another frustration when he insisted “the big problem this country has is being politically correct.”
The problem for Trump: He was a star, not a potential commander-in-chief. In six months, the first voters will go to the polls, and they’ll be looking for a president, not a television host.
No one won big Thursday, and no one doomed their campaign. The good news for Trump and his opponents: They get to debate again Sept. 16.