Republican frontrunner Donald J. Trump has sometimes struggled on the GOP debate stage. On Tuesday night, he owned it.
Trump made few mistakes, despite efforts by the moderators and the other candidates to knock him out of the pole position. While Sens. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Marco Rubio (R-FL) sparred over past Senate votes, and other candidates repeated lines familiar from the campaign trail, Trump looked comfortable–and solid.
He may not always have had the “right” answer, but he sounded more fluent with his own positions.
At one stage, he even felt confident enough to tangle with members of the audience–supporters, it seemed, of Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY)–who booed his idea to “infiltrate” Islamic State on the Internet.
“I just can’t imagine somebody booing. These are people that want to kill us, folks, and you’re objecting to us infiltrating their conversations? I don’t think so.”
Perhaps Trump’s rally on Monday evening was a useful warmup. There, Trump sparred jovially with left-wing hecklers and mocked the media for covering them.
Perhaps, too, grim events have conspired to affirm Trump’s “bombastic” (Carly Fiorina’s word) approach to national security: as he pointed out, both the Paris and San Bernardino terror attacks have happened since the last GOP debate.
Perhaps Trump simply knows he is sitting on a big lead.
Regardless, Trump won on Tuesday night–at times by fighting hard, at times by letting the stragglers squabble.
There were few personal attacks, no misstatements of his own policies. He faced repeated (and repetitive) attacks from Jeb Bush–often instigated by the moderators, as Trump pointed out–and simply pointed to his poll numbers.
He took a pass on Hugh Hewitt’s question about the nuclear triad. His opponents will remember. No one else will.
The CNN moderators pressed Trump early on his recent proposal to stop Muslims from immigrating or visiting the U.S. His answer was simple and stark: “We are not talking about isolation. We’re talking about security. We’re not talking about religion. We’re talking about security.”
No one–least of all Bush–laid a glove on him after that.
The vaunted Trump-vs.-Cruz fight failed to materialize. Cruz allowed himself to become entangled in arguments over foreign policy between the interventionist Rubio and the reticent Paul, who blasted Rubio on immigration.
Dr. Ben Carson and Fiorina had moments, and the other two governors onstage sounded clear themes–New Jersey’s Chris Christie attacking Washington, and Ohio’s John Kasich calling for less bickering.
But it was Trump’s night.
When Hewitt asked Trump to re-affirm his commitment to staying within the Republican Party, Trump said he would do so, prompting Hewitt himself to applaud.
“I feel honored to be the frontrunner,” Trump explained.
After winning the last debate of 2015, Trump is not just the frontrunner. He is the favorite to win the nomination.