If the Republican Party's first 2016 presidential debate last night is any indication, we are in for a rollicking, frenetic and exhausting primary campaign among a group of sharp-elbowed candidates. The opening, 30-minute quarter of the debate felt like it lasted much longer -- in a good way -- as the trio of Fox News hosts peppered the 10 candidates with often-stinging questions.
And, naturally, Donald Trump was the center of attention from the get-go.
The very first question was one of those raise-your-hand deals that tend toward the boring or hyperbolic. But this one instead crystallized the young election's key dynamic at the outset. "Is there anyone on stage," Fox's Bret Baier asked, "who is unwilling to pledge your support to the eventual nominee of the Republican Party ... and not to run an independent campaign against that person?"
Naturally, only one hand was raised: The Donald's.
A third-party run by Trump, presumably handing the election to Hillary Clinton on a platter, is what Republicans fear far more than Trump's quest for the GOP nomination itself, or anything brash or offensive he might say along the way. It's the reason they have been slow to antagonize him, as they're not yet sure he wouldn't shoot the proverbial hostage. The crowd booed, and Rand Paul immediately pounced:
"Here's what's wrong. He buys and sells politicians of all stripes" -- to which Trump merely gave a shrug of agreement -- "he's already hedging his bet on the Clintons, OK? So if he doesn't run (in the general) as a Republican (nominee), maybe he supports Clinton, or maybe he runs as an independent. But I'd say he's already hedging his bets because he's used to buying politicians."
Buying politicians, as in giving them campaign donations and then calling in favors for his businesses, is something Trump has talked about before and reiterated Thursday night. "You know, most of the people on this stage, I've given to," he said, "just so you understand."
"Not me," Marco Rubio interrupted, later adding, "To be clear, he supported Charlie Crist" in their 2010 Senate race.
It was a small dig, but it wasn't the only time Rubio used a small, well-placed fact to undermine one of Trump's claims.
Later in the debate, when Trump was asked about -- and defended -- his previous statements that the Mexican government was intentionally sending criminals across the border, other candidates danced around the question in an apparent attempt to avoid riling Trump or his backers. Rubio took a different tack: "The majority of people coming across the border are not from Mexico, they are from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras," he said. "I want to build a fence, but the problem is if 'El Chapo' builds a tunnel -- and we have to be ready for that too," a reference to the escape from prison last month of a Mexican drug lord.
In fact, Rubio did the most in my view to improve his standing during a debate that was -- predictably , for a debate with so many participants trying to grab the spotlight in their limited snippets of speaking -- long on zingers but short on substance.
The first-term senator had a few snappy lines, perhaps the best one coming when he was asked about Providence in politics: "I think God has blessed ... the Republican Party with some very good candidates. The Democrats can't even find one." But he was also the most natural at shifting immediately in each answer to the message he wanted to send home, and at voicing empathy for Americans who, six years after the recession ended, are still having trouble finding work or getting ahead. "If I am our nominee, how can Hillary lecture me about living paycheck to paycheck? I was raised paycheck to paycheck. If I am our nominee, how can Hillary lecture me about student debt? Until recently, I was paying down student loans."
If Rubio was the big winner, I was less impressed by Paul -- who had a spirited exchange with Chris Christie about the Patriot Act and domestic surveillance that ended in more or less a draw, but otherwise wasn't terribly memorable -- and by Jeb Bush.
Bush sounded defensive from the beginning, playing not to lose, even though he's only really winning in the fund-raising department at the moment. His answer about his presidential last name -- "In Florida they call me Jeb, because I earned it" -- came off a little corny to some Republicans I heard from. For every good answer he gave, for instance turning a question about his support for the Common Core standards into an answer about his education reform efforts in Florida, he had others that fell flat. It's not so much that I think Bush will lose supporters because of the debate, but more that he did little to suck up the oxygen sustaining the campaigns of folks like Christie and John Kasich. Other observers are higher on Kasich's performance than I am (though his best line of the night -- "America's a miracle country, and we have to restore the sense that the miracle can apply to you" -- was Rubio-esque). But Ohio's governor had the benefit of the home crowd in Cleveland and certainly didn't damage his chances.
Quickly running down the others: Scott Walker and Ted Cruz didn't shine like I and some other folks I talked with had expected, but nor did they hurt themselves; I think they simply maintained their standing, like Kasich. Benjamin Carson and Mike Huckabee both had nice nights after early stumbles (particularly for Carson, who in his first answer almost seemed overwhelmed by the moment) but I remain skeptical that either of them can win the nomination. Christie didn't do enough to reclaim the mantle as the GOP's Teller of Hard Truths he used to own. And as I indicated earlier, Rubio's up, while Paul and Bush are a little down if anything.
That brings us back to Trump, who probably looked great if you liked him before and bad if you didn't. Those who tuned in after not paying much attention to the race until now, I suspect, were entertained by the famously coiffed one but probably don't see him as having the temperament and demeanor that plays such a large role in our presidential contests. We may have seen "peak Trump," although he's defied the odds to this point and will probably mock his political obituarists once or twice more.
Finally, more of a question: From the undercard debate with the other seven candidates, the clear consensus is that Carly Fiorina won the day. Fox gave away as much by working in one of her answers to a question (as well as a line from Rick Perry that was complimentary of her). But to make it to the main stage of next month's second debate, Fiorina would have to bump off one of the other contenders. Who would that be at this point? Kasich was 10th in the polls, but he's also been on the ascent. Even if I'm right that Paul had a bad night on the whole, it was far from disastrous; his poll numbers ought to hold up. I guess I'd say Christie is most likely to drop down, but I'm open to being persuaded otherwise.