Thursday night’s debate presents a problem for Donald Trump. And future debates may compound the difficulty.
It’s not that he didn’t do well. He did fine. He was the same Trump whose fireworks, tough talk and connection to the concerns of the GOP base have rocketed him to the top of the polls.
It’s not even that he didn’t get more attention than the others. He did, by at least a little bit.
Trump’s problem was that, instead of completely dominating press coverage — as he does when all the candidates are dispersed to the hinterland trying to make their case to small groups over boiled chicken yum yum lunches — the current poll leader was forced to share the stage, literally, with nine other Republican candidates who seem completely credible.
Trump was standing next to people who, just like him, have real achievement in their background. They are eloquently and forcefully able to make a case for themselves.
That diminishes him, even if he doesn’t diminish himself.
Unlike in 2012, when Mitt Romney was able to look over at his rivals with that, “Oh, aren’t you a cute little bunny rabbit” look on his face, Trump is standing next to people who, just like him, have real achievement in their background. They are eloquently and forcefully able to make a case for themselves.
“God has blessed us,” said Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. “He’s blessed the Republican Party with some very good candidates. The Democrats can’t even find one.”
Indeed. And that, in the end, could be Trump’s undoing.
Several of the candidates on stage were able to tout strong records in the states they govern. Scott Walker faced down the unions in Wisconsin. John Kasich helped turn Ohio’s economic fortunes around. New Jersey’s Chris Christie, whose state still has problems, claimed he has at least made things better than they were. And he can talk as tough as Trump.
In the Senate, Ted Cruz and Rand Paul have both led battles on behalf of the base against the entrenched GOP leadership. Dr. Ben Carson is a world renowned surgeon who sounded on the stage like he’d be utterly prepared to don some presidential scrubs and start operating on the patient — namely, the United States under President Barack Obama.
“I would shore up our military first, because without our military, nothing else is going to work,” said Carson.
Each candidate had moments of eloquence, first-rate pre-packaged one liners, and the ability to pivot off uncomfortable questions to things they wanted to talk about, such as touting their records and talking about what they’ll do for the country.
Several engaged in debates that demonstrated a sharp ability to think on their feet, the best example perhaps being this exchange between Christie and Paul about government surveillance.
“I want to collect more records from terrorists, but less records from Americans,” Paul said.
“That’s a completely ridiculous answer,” Christie retorted. “When you’re sitting in a subcommittee just blowing hot air about this, you can say things like that. When you’re responsible for protecting the lives of the American people, then what you need to do is to make sure you use the system the way it’s supposed to work.”
“You fundamentally misunderstand the Bill of Rights,” Paul replied, irked. “Every time you did a case, you got a warrant from a judge . . . I don’t trust President Obama with our records. I know you gave him a big hug, and if you want to give him a big hug again, you go right ahead,” Paul quipped to a roar from the crown.
“Sen. Paul, you know the hugs that I remember are the hugs that I gave to the people who lost their people on Sept. 11, and those had nothing to do with politics,” said Christie.
Christie slugged right back.
“Sen. Paul, you know the hugs that I remember are the hugs that I gave to the people who lost their people on Sept. 11, and those had nothing to do with politics — unlike what you’re doing by cutting speeches on the floor of the Senate and then putting them on the Internet within a half an hour to raise money for your campaign.”
With heavyweights like these muscling in on Trump’s coverage, the polls may start to shift.
Most of the Washington political “experts” are waiting for Trump to implode. But many such prognosticators lean to the left, so they fail to see two things: That Trump’s appeal to the GOP base in genuine because he is expressing their desperation for serious change, but also that the Republican field has some quality candidates who can keep pace when they get to be in the same room with the frontrunner.