Debate Nightmare for the GOP

Did Trump hurt himself by ducking debate? "Who the hell knows?" he said, as if he didn't care.

Donald Trump speaks at an event at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, on Thursday. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Two hours be­fore the de­bate, and two miles from the de­bate site, Michelle Bell stood in a line that stretched four chilly blocks to see her fa­vor­ite GOP pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate, Don­ald Trump.

“I love him,” Bell said. “He doesn’t back down.”

For voters like Bell, Trump’s re­fus­al to par­ti­cip­ate in the last de­bate be­fore the first pres­id­en­tial bal­lots are cast won’t soften their love. Nor will his du­bi­ous claim to raise $5 mil­lion for vet­er­ans at a de­bate protest event. Or his laugh­able claim that the news me­dia was pick­ing on him.

“When you’re treated badly, you have to stick up for your rights,” Trump said at his rally, which star­ted 15 minutes after the Fox News de­bate began. “And that’s what our coun­try has to do.”

The thin-skinned Trump was up­set be­cause the Fox News mocked his com­plaints about host Me­gyn Kelly, who asked a tough but fair ques­tion in a pre­vi­ous de­bate about Trump’s re­cord of in­tem­per­ate re­marks to­ward wo­men.

Trump claims Fox apo­lo­gized at the last minute. Fox claims it merely “ac­know­ledged his con­cerns.”

I don’t know who is telling the truth, but I do know that Trump is al­ler­gic to it.

Will duck­ing the de­bate hurt Trump’s stand­ing with pa­ro­chi­al Iowa voters or em­bolden his icon­o­clast­ic brand? I trust Trump on this one: He said, “Who the hell knows?”

What I do know: Thursday night was a night­mare for the GOP—an­oth­er step to­ward what ap­pears to be a deep and en­dur­ing split between the party’s es­tab­lish­ment and its angry in­sur­gents, a rude and un­ruly polit­ic­al cir­cus that re­af­firms for in­de­pend­ent voters their worst im­pres­sions of the Grand Old Party.

Back at the de­bate, Trump’s main anties­tab­lish­ment rival took ad­vant­age of the first ques­tion. “I’m a ma­ni­ac, and every­body on this stage is stu­pid, fat, and ugly. And, Ben [Car­son], you’re a ter­rible sur­geon,” said Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. “Now that we’ve got the Don­ald Trump por­tion out of the way ....”

Fol­lowed by Marco Ru­bio, the Flor­ida sen­at­or threat­en­ing to fin­ish in the top two or three dur­ing Monday’s caucuses. “He’s an en­ter­tain­ing guy,” Ru­bio said of Trump, dis­missively. “The greatest show on earth.”

“I kind of miss Don­ald Trump,” former Flor­ida Gov. Jeb Bush said. “He was a little teddy bear to me.”

Bush didn’t mean it.

In truth, the de­bate seemed like shad­owbox­ing. For bet­ter or worse, al­most all the race’s pas­sion and en­ergy was lined up for blocks at Drake Uni­versity, where Trump held his counter-event. Of the two dozen crowd mem­bers I in­ter­viewed, 12 were polit­ic­al rub­ber­neck­ers—sup­port­ers of Ru­bio, Cruz, and Demo­crat­ic Sen. Bernie Sanders who wanted to see the P.T. Barnum of 21st-cen­tury polit­ics.

“It’s an event,” Robert Park­er of Des Moines told me. “It’s a cir­cus.”

The oth­er half called them­selves Trump sup­port­ers and spoke of their frus­tra­tion with an eco­nomy that aban­doned them, a polit­ic­al class that shaf­ted them, so­cial in­sti­tu­tions that failed them, and demo­graph­ic shifts that will soon make whites an Amer­ic­an minor­ity.

To a per­son, Trump’s back­ers eer­ily echoed their can­did­ate’s own talk­ing points to de­scribe their ad­u­la­tion. “I think he’s won­der­ful,” said Bell, the moth­er of three from Ames, Iowa. “Huge.”

I asked why he’s won­der­ful. I asked why he’s huge.

“Be­cause he’s not afraid,” Bell replied. “He doesn’t back down. He’s strong.”

OK, I said. But couldn’t his fear­less­ness, re­solve, and strength drive Trump to do things as pres­id­ent that go against her best in­terests?

“Sure,” she replied, “but that’s not go­ing to hap­pen. I like his feisti­ness, his cha­risma.”

We went back and forth:

“What about is­sues?”

“He’ll stop IS­IS and build up the mil­it­ary,” she replied.

“Every can­did­ate prom­ises to do that.”

“That’s true. He will help wounded war­ri­ors.”

“Every can­did­ate prom­ises to do that.”

“You got me there.” Bell chewed si­lently on our con­ver­sa­tion for sev­er­al seconds be­fore throw­ing up her hands in sur­render.

“I just think he’s strong,” she said.

For now, any­how, that’s all that mat­ters.