I'd like to say that with last night's ugly performance in the GOP debate, Donald Trump finally went over the line even for his many fans. However, as someone who never appreciated Trump's charms in the first place, I'm not sure I'm a good judge of where that line might be.
The man came across as a preening, boorish idiot trying to find common ground with other idiots. If the difference between an entertaining eccentric and a total jerk is how much time you're forced to listen to him, the two-hour debate was about an hour and 59 minutes too long for Trump's chances. But again, that's me; we'll have to see what GOP primary voters have to say. In a poll released just a few hours before the debate, Trump drew more support from Georgia Republicans than the next three candidates combined.
Like I said, I just don't get it. Even if you're looking for someone to express your anger and frustration, certainly you can find a better spokesperson for that sentiment in one of the 16 other GOP candidates. Overall, and thanks largely to Trump, I don't think last night's reality-show spectacle did much for the Republican brand.
On the other hand, the biggest winner of the night was Fox News. Not just because of the high ratings drawn by the debate, but because its panel of three anchors was prepared and aggressive, drawing as much as possible from a crowded stage of contenders. Chris Wallace, Megyn Kelly and Bret Baier managed the high-wire walk of taking a distinct pro-conservative approach without backing away from tough questioning of conservative candidates. If they failed in producing much enlightenment on policy questions, that failure was more a function of a crowded stage filled with too many candidates and one man's overweening ego.
- Jeb Bush was content to do little and safely cleared that bar. As David Frum pointed out on Twitter, "Jeb Bush strategy tonight: If you’ve raised enough super PAC $, you can afford to be the dullest guy on the stage."
- Ohio Gov. John Kasich probably helped himself the most, benefiting from a home-court advantage in front of the Cleveland audience and making a good first impression for many voters. But it was disappointing to watch him coddle rather than confront Trump when given the chance.
- Ben Carson was befuddled and out of place, reviving memories of James "what I am doing here?" Stockdale from the '92 vice presidential debates. Carson ought to be the first one kicked off the island to make room for Carly Fiorina, who shined in the preliminary bout.
- Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Chris Christie and Mike Huckabee did little to elevate themselves out of the second tier, with Huckabee probably the runt of that particular litter.
- Based on last night's performance alone, Marco Rubio did elevate himself into the top tier of candidates, but his poll standing remains well below what his potential for some reason. He and Kasich would both benefit if the field shrinks quickly, allowing them to get more time in the limelight, but I doubt that's going to happen.