Those who tuned in for last night’s Republican primary debate saw a lively, rowdy, jumbled fight, and now that the field is down to five, it made it easier for candidates to go after the front-runner, and they did. Here’s what I got out of it.
1. MARCO RUBIO CAN SLAY THE TROLL – How do you beat a bully? You punch him in the face and mock him. Rubio turned Trump into a joke. He exposed Trump’s lack of depth on pretty much every issue, and he managed to turn his own biggest weakness – repeating himself in the New Hampshire debate – into a punchline to wallop Trump. Rubio got Trump flustered, and Trump kept repeating himself. He unloaded on Trump’s use of illegal immigrants for cheap labor, his fraud with Trump University, his life of luxury after inheriting millions, and so on.
2. DONALD TRUMP GOT EXPOSED – This actually was not Trump’s worst debate. I thought his South Carolina debate was worse, and he still won the primary. This time around though, not only did Rubio show the emperor had no clothes, he showed that the clothes the emperor made were done so in Mexico. When you press him for details, he flails. His plan on ObamaCare is to keep the mandate – I mean, get rid of it – and other than allow insurance plans to cross state lines (which is part of most of the other guys’ plans), he didn’t have anything. When Wolf asked him how he’d pay for the southern-border wall, he said, “I will.” Trump’s best moments are one-liners and when he can cite the polls, but it got so bad that he complained he was getting too many questions.
3. TED CRUZ HAD LIKEABLE MOMENTS – Cruz had some effective shots at Trump as well, and if you’re a Cruz fan, there was a lot to be happy about. He poked at Trump’s donations to Hillary Clinton and made him look silly on immigration. He made a strong case about the importance of the Supreme Court Justice nomination fight. By the end of the night though, he’d faded. The headline was “Rubio v. Trump.” I think a lot of voters are trying to decide which candidate they can support to beat Trump. Rubio and Cruz agree on 90% of things, but it was Rubio who came out as the happy warrior. But here’s this. Cruz has this style of locking his eyebrows into false sincerity, speaking with “applaud here” pauses, and delivering his lines like it’s a Shakespearean soliloquy with inspirational music swelling in the background. I would say for at least half of his answers he was not doing that. When he counter-argues with full paragraphs, it conveys “I really know what I’m talking about here. This is something actually important to me.”
4. JOHN KASICH’S FATHER WAS A MAILMAN – I genuinely like Kasich. If Rubio dropped out today, I’d question his sanity, but then I’d move my support to Kasich. Kasich is the classic Republican candidate, an embarrassment of riches in experience. But Kasich’s campaign relies on his aw-shucks humble beginnings and is still a little too general-election. Too often he tried to be the voice of civility, which is admirable, but did it move any needles? I would argue no, and in fact, after that debate, I think it just made more Republicans hungrier for this to be a three-man race.
5. BEN CARSON NEEDS TO DROP OUT YESTERDAY – He’s a brilliant neuro-surgeon. He has a calm demeanor. We went through another debate where he didn’t give any compelling reason why he’s still in this race. In fact, he pointedly said he was going to whine about not getting enough time. His closing argument was reminding people he had a movie made about him.
6. WOLF BLITZER IS A TERRIBLE MODERATOR – These are supposed to be debates, but any time it started to get good between Rubio & Trump, or Cruz & Trump, Wolf would interrupt and go to Kasich or Carson. But then several times he just let it descend into chaos and let everyone talk at once. And there was no follow-up. When Trump just said of the wall, “I will.” You will how? HOW?!
7. ARE THERE OTHER MINORITIES IN AMERICA BESIDES HISPANICS? – Perhaps it’s by virtue of this being a CNN/Telemundo debate, but there were a lot of questions about Hispanics but none about any other groups. How would they do with a round of questions about Black Lives Matter?
8. APPLE V. THE FBI – I think all of them took the FBI’s side. I have yet to be persuaded. I’m still on Apple’s side.
Now, will this change the landscape? We know that Trump could shoot someone on 5th Avenue, and his followers wouldn’t leave him. He can make fun of disabled people, get endorsed by the KKK’s David Duke, go to court for fraud, hire illegal immigrants for their cheap labor, baldface lie about any number of things, be a birther, be a 9/11 truther, threaten to destroy the First Amendment, and it wouldn’t matter. He would be the least predictable president in history, and that doesn’t phase his hardcore supporters. He’s getting 30%-35% of the Republican votes.
Looking ahead to Super Tuesday, which I do a little too obsessively, there are 14 states, and Trump will probably win anywhere between 8-11 of them. (If it’s all 14, it’s over.) It’s really important that most of them are close for delegate allocation. It is a 99% surety that Trump will still lead the delegate race on March 2, but if enough of those states are close, there’s still a path for a non-authoritarian bully candidate to win the Republican nomination.