The question before tonight’s GOP debate was whether this would be the moment when Donald Trump would finally flop. He held a double-digit lead across the national polls that Fox News, which hosted the debate with Facebook, used to pick the debaters. But he hadn’t been truly tested on policy, or forced to spar with career politicians.
But Trump’s greatest strength has always been that he can’t be cowed under any circumstances—even at times when he should be—and that his natural talent as a showman consistently wins the crowd over to his side. He didn’t need to prove his ability to be presidential—just to put on a show and continue drawing attention away from his competition. The result was no more real than a typical reality show, but in the context of a stage-managed debate where 10 candidates were vying for attention, that was real enough.
Trump had by far the most speaking time of all the candidates—11:14, compared to 8:48 for Jeb Bush and seven minutes or less for most of the rest.
He frequently fell back on his sharp, sometimes crass sense of humor. When host Megyn Kelly asked Trump about his history of derogatory comments toward women, calling them “fat, pigs, dogs, slobs, and disgusting animals,” he responded with an offensive crack. “Only Rosie O’Donnell,” he said, referring to the comedian he’s been feuding with for years.
When Kelly pressed on, asking about a time when he had joked about getting oral sex from a woman on The Apprentice, he replied: ”I don’t frankly have time for total political correctness,” and got laughs and applause in response.
Asked about his four bankruptcy filings, he said: “Out of hundreds of deals, on four occasions I have taken advantage of the laws of this country,” he said, and then continued: ”These lenders aren’t babies. They’re total killers. They’re not the sweet people you think.”
Again, the crowd laughed. “I would say he’s incompetent, but I won’t because that’s not nice,” he said about President Obama. He suggested that he basically bribed Hillary Clinton into attending his wedding.
The other candidates struggled as Trump sucked much of the oxygen out of the room, especially early on. Jeb Bush looked composed, if a bit wooden. Marco Rubio had moments where he exuded competence and confidence, as did Ted Cruz. John Kasich staked out ground as a compassionate centrist conservative, though it’s far from clear whether that will help him win any primaries.
Others fared worse. Ben Carson, who was in the middle of the polls coming into the debate, seemed to disappear until the closing statements. Rand Paul had his most notable moments during a losing dust up with Chris Christie over collecting people’s call records to prevent terrorism, and getting zinged by Trump.
Trump, to be sure, didn’t impress on his plans for the country, and he faded from view during much of the second half of the debate, when the moderators seemed to focus their attention on other candidates.
But none of that may matter. In all likelihood, Trump wasn’t likely to win the Republican nomination anyway. Early polls are notoriously unreliable, so his lead may mean nothing. As the nomination nears and policy becomes more important, the overwhelming odds are that his candidacy will eventually fade. Until then, he’s here to act out his reality show—and tonight he got a primetime billing.