Donald Trump was at the center of the surprisingly exciting first Republican presidential debate. He was the candidate who had you wondering, every time it was his turn to speak, what he was going to do next. The most interesting interactions between candidates all involved him.
None of it went quite the way one might have expected. Plenty of people had speculated that Trump would go hard after former Florida governor Jeb Bush, especially when Bush was quoted hours before the debate saying nasty things about him. Instead, Bush was the only candidate Trump praised.
Maybe the polls will prove me wrong, but I didn’t think the night actually went well for Trump. The crowd didn’t like it when he refused to say he would back the Republican nominee. And he was at his least attractive in an exchange with Megyn Kelly, one of Fox News’s three moderators for the debate.
She asked him about his disgusting comments about women over the years, and he responded that he had no time for “political correctness.” That probably went over well with some of his fans, who confuse being gross for being blunt. But he couldn’t stop himself from veering into whining about Kelly’s alleged unfairness to him, and hinting that he would retaliate in some fashion.
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The candidate who took the most effective shot against Trump wasn’t on the stage with him. Carly Fiorina, in the night’s earlier debate, managed to bring up his past support of Democrats and liberal positions in a concise soundbite that somehow didn’t come across as overheated, as other attacks on Trump have.
John Kasich, the Ohio governor, who was on the stage with Trump, tried another tack: suggesting that Trump’s campaign had shown the depth of people’s concern about illegal immigration and that this concern should be addressed. (Trump, true to form, had already praised himself, absurdly, for being responsible for immigration’s being a debate topic at all.)
Taken collectively, the candidates handled Trump the right way: raising questions about him (Fiorina), expressing respect for voters who have been interested in him (Kasich), and generally letting him sink of his own weight (the rest of them).
That remains very likely to happen. Trump is trying to become the Republican standard-bearer while keeping open the option to run as an independent; to look like a plausible president while being mad as hell at everyone in public life. And he’s not a tightrope walker.
All political campaigns are vulnerable to reverse-bandwagon effects: You lose points in a poll, or a primary, and you start to look like a loser. But Trump has this problem in spades, because every other word out of his mouth is about what a winner he is.
That habit of his lent special poignancy to the saddest moment of the night. Trump said, as he has said before, that he contributes to politicians including Hillary Clinton and in return gets what he wants from them. Asked the obvious follow-up – what did he get? – and perhaps aware that some potential answers could cause him a lot of trouble, he said that he had purchased her attendance at one of his weddings.
There’s a winner for you.
Ramesh Ponnuru, a Bloomberg View columnist, is a senior editor for National Review, where he has covered national politics for 18 years, and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.