A little more than halfway through last night’s Bataan death march of a Republican debate, the Wisconsin right-wing talk-show host Charlie Sykes tweeted, “Awful debate for Trump. The Trumpkins won’t care.”
Trump turned in a remarkably listless performance, buffeted by his rivals’ attacks, frequently sputtering or struggling to respond. His trademark bluster repeatedly failed him; the celebrity who has coasted to first place thanks to his larger-than-life persona seemed decidedly life-size. Pundits across the political spectrum unanimously pronounced him weakened and diminished.
Will it matter? That is anyone’s guess.
By the normal rules of politics, it ought to. But this is a political season that has repeatedly defied the normal rules. Trump has shown remarkable staying power through numerous controversies—in fact, he thrives on them. And even as Trump’s many opponents savor his stumble, they worry that he will again prove impervious to gravity.
One factor that could work in Trump’s favor is that so many other candidates turned in strong performances. Carly Fiorina was the undisputed star—deft, steely, consistent—and she repeatedly put Trump in his place. But others shone, too. Marco Rubio drew plaudits for his foreign-policy acumen and smooth delivery; Chris Christie was genial and energetic. Ben Carson was mild but authentic, while Rand Paul thoughtfully articulated his principles. Scott Walker got low marks for disappearing into the woodwork, but he had several strong moments early on.
One Trump opponent who didn’t acquit himself particularly well was Jeb Bush, who got plenty of airtime but often seemed tetchy and exasperated. He failed to extract an apology from Trump for insulting his wife and could often be seen rolling his eyes and sighing while others were talking. (For a master class in making faces while other people speak, see Trump.) Bush’s strategy is to consolidate the non-Trump vote, but anti-Trump voters saw a lot of good options on Wednesday’s stage, and Bush wasn’t necessarily one of them. The more the field remains splintered, the easier it is for Trump to remain on top.
Let's not forget that plenty of people thought Trump had a bad debate last time—and his support only grew. That was largely due to the way he followed up the debate: creating not one but two media feuds (with Megyn Kelly and Erick Erickson), which quickly chased his debate clips off the cable-news airwaves. Trump is a master at staging such attention-getting spectacles. And as long as he’s backed by the right-wing Troll Industrial Complex of Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter (who, during the debate, added anti-Semitism to her long roster of public hatreds), and Breitbart.com, he has a built-in megaphone.
Still, Wednesday's debate gave many mainstream Republicans reason for hope—a vision of a world beyond Trump, something that previously seemed like sheer wishful thinking. As Fiorina put it: “All of us will be revealed over time and under pressure. I look forward to a long race.”