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.