For some time now, people who believe in the theory of Donald Trump’s inevitable demise have thought that he’d either say something so outrageous that voters would finally reject him or he’d perform so poorly in debates that voters would flee to more polished candidates. Well, it’s safe to say that the outrageous comments theory had been discredited, and — after tonight’s debate — it’s clear that Trump isn’t going to beat himself in direct competition with his colleagues.
Ten minutes into tonight’s debate, however, I wasn’t so sure. Ted Cruz demolished the birther question so effortlessly, so naturally, that I thought it was Cruz’s night. But then came the “New York values” question. Trump bested Cruz, and in doing so he subtly made a point that conservatives need to remember — we can’t and shouldn’t write off any part of America. By hearkening back to New York’s heart after 9/11, for a moment Trump transcended politics. How easily we forget, but for weeks after the terror attacks, New York was America. By the end of the exchange, Cruz was applauding and Trump was ascendant.
The bottom line? Going into the debate, Trump had a solid lead. There was nothing that happened to dissuade Trump’s followers. Indeed, he likely inspired the plurality that support him — persuading them that he’s ready for more debates, including an ultimate confrontation with Hillary Clinton.
As for the other leaders, Cruz had perhaps his best debate. The “birther” exchange showed that a good debater can mix knowledge with humor, and he sliced and diced Trump more effectively than any candidate in the race. But then he endured two withering attacks — first from Trump on the “New York values” question and then, later, from Rubio who dumped a massive amount of opposition research on Cruz in one devastating minute.
Finally, I like angry Rubio. As someone said on Twitter, you can make a smart person angry, but you can’t make an angry person smart. If he can slow down his delivery just a bit, then his natural eloquence is powerful when he makes a forceful argument. His argument on gun control was outstanding, as was his critique of the Obama/Clinton foreign policy.
So far, it’s a Trump/Cruz/Rubio race, and this debate didn’t knock Trump from the top. He won, but his chief competitors performed well. The next few weeks will be interesting indeed.