By Jonathan Easley - 03/04/16 02:33 AM EST
The Republican presidential debate on Thursday night will be remembered for its insults, showdowns and one very personal declaration from GOP front-runner Donald TrumpDonald TrumpObama reads mean tweet from Trump on ‘Kimmel’ 5 takeaways from the Pa. Senate debate Report: Clinton ordered operative to troll Trump with duck MORE about his anatomy.
Fox News moderator Megyn Kelly
“Mr. Trump. Hello. How are you?”
Those words from Megyn Kelly kicked off the first exchange between herself and Donald Trump following a months-long public feud.
It was worth the wait.
Kelly repeatedly challenged the front-runner and elicited several responses that could have a lasting impact on the race. The exchanges were pointed but civil.
Kelly got Trump to acknowledge that he’s “softening” his position on visas for foreign workers, a central component in the immigration debate.
She pressed him on the D-minus rating his eponymous university got from the Better Business Bureau after Trump claimed the school was highly rated.
Kelly asked Trump if he wasn’t “playing to people’s fantasies” by refusing to release an audio transcript between himself and The New York Times on immigration.
And when she informed Trump that he had changed his tune on so many things that it raised questions about his “core,” Trump responded that “you have to have a certain degree of flexibility” — an answer that immediately gave his rivals fodder for attack.
That aggressiveness was on display by Chris Wallace and Brett Baier as well. But the pressure was on Kelly, who became part of the story as the subject of relentless attacks from Trump, who feels he was mistreated at the first debate back in August. On Thursday night, she delivered.
Businessman Donald Trump
Once again, Donald Trump took heat from every direction. Once again, he gave his supporters exactly what they were looking for.
Trump dispatched of Mitt Romney, with an added dig at the 2012 GOP nominee’s tanned skin. He “totally” disavowed the Ku Klux Klan, a controversy that has yet to hurt him.
Trump boasted about the size of his manhood, a declaration that will spin on an endless loop until the sun explodes. He kept his composure under heavy, yet respectful, fire from Megyn Kelly in the night’s marquee match-up.
The front-runner said he has “softened” his position on immigration in what could be an eye toward the general election. But he also stuck by controversial positions on enhanced interrogation techniques because “that’s what I believe.”
Trump is too quick on his feet for his rivals to land any serious blows, and he never seems to be hurt by changing or explaining away past positions that would be problematic for anyone else.
It was vintage Trump, and the night may have ended prophetically for him. All of the Republican candidates on stage vowed to support him if he’s the party’s nominee.
Former Secretary of State Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonObama reads mean tweet from Trump on ‘Kimmel’ 5 takeaways from the Pa. Senate debate Report: Clinton ordered operative to troll Trump with duck MORE
“Gentlemen, gentlemen, you’ve got to do better than this,” Chris Wallace implored the candidates after one particularly nasty bout of infighting.
The first half hour of Thursday’s debate was a complete fiasco, marred by insults and shouting over each other.
It will be remembered as the first time a candidate has alluded to his genitals in a presidential debate.
The focus group headed by Republican pollster Frank Luntz described the proceedings as “embarrassing,” “childish,” “sophomoric” and “disgusting.” A former aide to Rick Perry’s presidential campaign tweeted that his party was “committing suicide on national television.”
The debate largely leveled off after the opening, but it was indicative of the state of the GOP race as a whole.
Democrats are gleeful and predicting that the protracted fight and nasty tone of the Republican nominating process will only boost Hillary Clinton, their likely nominee, in the fall.
Sen. Ted CruzTed CruzBreitbart, liberal activist cooperated on GOP primary disruptions: report Juan Williams: When WikiLeaks leaked my cell number 56 memorable moments from a wild presidential race MORE (Texas)
Cruz only played a few notes at Thursday night’s debate, but he hit them consistently and with vigor.
The Texas senator made the case that he’s the only candidate on stage with the possibility of taking down Trump. That argument carried more weight in the wake of his stronger-than-expected Super Tuesday showing.
Cruz consistently battered Trump for his history of donating to Democrats and supporting liberal causes, at one point demanding the front-runner explain how he plans to face down Hillary Clinton on the debate stage after supporting her in 2008.
And he effortlessly flipped a question about whether Trump is stronger than he is on immigration into a comprehensive takedown of the front-runner’s donations to Democrats.
It was a performance that could help Cruz cement the notion in the minds of some conservatives that he’s the best hope for the anti-Trump crowd, even if many establishment Republicans would have to hold their noses as they pulled the lever for him.
Gov. John Kasich (Ohio)
Kasich didn’t field a question until 15 minutes into the debate and was forgotten on stage for long periods of time.
That’s probably a net positive for him, as he won’t be associated with Trump’s body parts or any of the other ugly exchanges that defined the first half of the debate.
When Kasich did get to speak, he was usually defending staying in the race or the positions he holds that are to the left of the rest of the field.
Still, he did it in the way that has gotten him this far — by steadfastly refusing to attack his rivals and speaking in the language of compassionate conservatism.
Although Luntz’s focus group described the Ohio governor as the adult in the room, Kasich didn’t have any game-changing moments on Thursday night. He has almost no path to the nomination.
Still, he’ll plug along and face a reckoning from voters in his home state of Ohio on March 15, and he’ll get to do it on his terms.
Sen. Marco RubioMarco RubioBreitbart, liberal activist cooperated on GOP primary disruptions: report Obama seeks down-ballot gains after being midterm loser Chamber endorses bill to block proposed estate tax rules MORE (Florida)
It was not a terrible night for Rubio but, as always seems to be the case for him, he needed more.
Rubio’s voice was hoarse and sucked of its energy. The zingers that he gleefully slung at Trump in the last debate seemed tired and worn this time around.
All of the optimism surrounding Rubio’s campaign following a flood of establishment support, and the turn to attacking Trump seems to have vaporized since Super Tuesday.
Rubio didn’t do anything on Thursday night to reignite that spark. He’s talking big about his campaign turning around in Florida on March 15, but Trump may have other plans.
The Republican establishment
Mitt Romney is back on the scene and perhaps angling for leverage at a contested convention. A “Draft Paul RyanPaul RyanTrump slams ObamaCare after premium hikes announced The Trail 2016: Who is really winning? Pelosi urges end to Pentagon's clawback of soldier overpayments MORE” super-PAC has sprung up.
The two candidates remaining in the race that most mainstream conservatives would be happy with — Marco Rubio and John Kasich — scarcely have a path to the nomination between them.
There is talk of “unity tickets,” an establishment candidate running as an independent and either too many or too few candidates still in the race to block Trump from the nomination. Cruz is looking more appealing by the day.
This was not how things were supposed to go for the GOP’s deepest field ever, and nothing changed on Thursday night.