It was a chastened Donald Trump that met CNN’s Chris Cuomo on the stage at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library after Wednesday’s night’s marathon GOP debate.
The frontrunner who had fumed about his ill treatment after the Fox News debate last month now had nothing but respect for his fellow candidates. The three-hour debate, he said, had been too long–but otherwise, no complaints, and a dose of humility that the public had not seen before.
Oddly, this time there would have been real reason to complain. The studio audience was stacked against Trump. Trump got laughs and even applause from the media tent next door, but the studio audience registered much smaller reactions. In contrast, Trump’s opponents won rousing cheers when they attacked him. The effect was no accident, as my colleague Jon Fleischman confirmed: the studio audience was packed with the party establishment and elite.
As usual, Trump’s fans and foes came to quick conclusions. In reality, it was a mixed night for the Donald.
He had a better grasp of policy details this time around, especially on the 14th Amendment and birthright citizenship, when even Rand Paul felt compelled to admit that Trump was right. (He had a few potential clangers, too: notably on the pronunciation of Arab–actually, Iranian–names, and on the spurious link between childhood vaccines and autism.)
While Trump improved, so, too, did almost everyone else. After a shaky start, Carly Fiorina stood out–and showed she can take a few punches, too. Marco Rubio had a poor night until Jake Tapper called him a climate change “skeptic,” which seemed to focus his mind. Scott Walker struggled, but made a valiant effort. If the CNN debate had been a Donald Trump reality TV show, the only candidate to be “fired” would likely have been John Kasich.
Still, it was an important night for Trump–and raises important questions about his future.
Amazingly, the primary race is Trump’s to lose. He has one of the best ground games of any campaign–a fact that the media have largely failed to report thus far. He has a solid core of supporters who stick with him through goofs and gaffes. Several of Trump’s rivals have wasted their money and their political capital on desperate negative campaigning against him.
Some have done better by raising their game. Mike Huckabee embraced Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis and her cause–and shared her spotlight–and showed that beating Donald Trump requires a bold message and aggressive tactics. Carly Fiorina swung for the fences on the main stage Wednesday night with an analogy between the Iran deal and the Planned Parenthood controversy that started as a rhetorical stretch and ended as a political triumph.
Others have tried different tactics. Ben Carson and Ted Cruz, for example, have embraced Trump. Viewers of reality TV will recognize the gambit: the temporary alliance, a mutual defense pact between contestants in the early rounds who promise not to vote each other off the island until the final stages bring their rivalries into sharp focus.
But Trump has to adjust his game plan, and he knows it. Without reducing himself to a conventional politician, he has to find a way to respect the vetting process.
For one thing, he still needs more specific policies. His promise to talk with Vladimir Putin, for instance, is little different from Barack Obama’s promise of “tough diplomacy” in 2008.
Trump makes that sound more credible. But can voters be sure? That’s where he has yet to close the deal.