So much for the idea that Donald Trump would try to act like a typical presidential candidate. No, when The Donald met his rivals for the Republican presidential nomination during their first debate Thursday, it was all bluster and bravado—although the bullying seemed to be kept in check.
The fiery real estate mogul unleashed his signature enthusiasm during the debate’s first minutes. He refused to support the eventual GOP nominee, even as he was standing in the arena where he or she should be crowned next summer. He threaten to stop being “nice” to a female Fox News moderator who asked him about sexist remarks. He said “the stupid leaders of the United States” are to blame for immigrants in the country illegally. He said “dishonest” reporters were to blame for taking his comments about immigrants out of context, although he did not dispute any of the videos or transcripts noting he did, in fact, describe Mexicans in the country illegally as rapists and drug dealers.
“If it weren’t for me you wouldn’t be talking about illegal immigration,” Trump boasted.
It was The Trump Show. His nine rivals were merely bit players. While Trump boasted about his business empire, his opponents were offering thoughtful answers and policy prescriptions. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush each delivered solid performances, yet were eclipsed by Trump.
“They say we’re outspoken?” Ohio Gov. John Kasich said, laughing that he and Christie are often branded as tough-talking bullies. “Donald Trump is hitting a nerve in this country.”
But Trump was not hitting his rivals. No, his targets were more broadly Washington lawmakers. Aside from asides and snark, it does not seem that Trump came to the debate armed with research to lay into the rivals on stage. When Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul tried to attack Trump for his former support for the principles of Obamacare, Trump brushed him off. “I don’t think you heard me. You’re having a hard time tonight,” Trump said. In disagreeing with Bush on the question of immigration, Trump was more gentle than even Bush’s advisers could have hoped for. “We need, Jeb, to build a wall,” Trump said.
The pair also tangled over Trump’s rhetoric and what it might mean for the eventual GOP nominee.
“Mr. Trump’s language is divisive. I want to win,” Bush said. Trump’s approach, he said, was not a recipe for success.
Trump countered in signature tough-guy talk: “We don’t have time for tone. We have to go out and get the job done.”
At other times, Trump went after the moderators who dared question previous statements, including calling some women “fat pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animals.”
Trump then threatened host Megyn Kelly. “Megyn, if you don’t like it, I’m sorry. I’ve been very nice to you, although I could probably maybe not be, based on the way you have treated me. But I wouldn’t do that,” Trump said, before saying he was “kidding.”
“I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct,” he said to applause. “I’ve been challenged by so many people, and I don’t frankly have time for total political correctness. And to be honest with you, this country doesn’t have time either.”
Asked by another moderator, for evidence that the Mexican government was sending immigrants into the country, Trump hemmed and hawed. “Border patrol people that I deal with,” he offered.
Trying to get a word in edgewise, Trump’s rivals took issue with how he was describing the challenge of illegal immigration. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas said immigrants here illegally came because the Obama Administration was giving orders to officials to ignore immigration laws.
“It’s a not a question of stupidity. It’s that they don’t want to enforce the immigration laws,” Cruz said.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a 2008 contender, had his signature one-liners ready. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Ohio Gov. John Walker weathered their first nationally televised debate without poking Trump. Retired soft-spoken surgeon Ben Carson was a relative non-factor.
Trump roared into the presidential race with a theatrical speech that immediately put him on his heels. He called immigrants in the country illegally rapists; business partners ran away from Trump and dropped contracts with him. Trump refused to apologize. His poll numbers skyrocketed.
The participants in the Fox News Channel debate were chose by an average of five recent national polls: The 10 best finishers got primetime billing. The other seven met during drive-time in what was billed as a Happy Hour Debate that was far from celebratory. The consensus was that former tech executive Carly Fiorina bested her rivals in that exchange.
Those polls, however, are certain to change. At this point, many of the results are driven largely by name recognition, and on that Trump dominates. The question is if voters, who are just tuning in, continue to tell pollsters they like Trump between now and Election Day 2016—a distant 459 days away.