There are two more Republican presidential debates left on the schedule — and that is more than enough for party insiders, who fear that the insult-rich clashes are becoming deeply damaging to the GOP's image.
In their minds, Thursday’s debate in Detroit was a nadir. They single out, in particular, the moment when front-runner Donald TrumpDonald TrumpOmar, Muslim Democrats decry Islamophobia amid death threats On The Money — Powell pivots as inflation rises Trump cheers CNN's Cuomo suspension MORE sought to rebut implied suggestions from rival Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioWisconsinites need infrastructure that is built to last Republicans struggle to save funding for Trump's border wall Rubio: Dropping FARC from terrorist list threatens Colombians, US security MORE that his manhood was inadequate.
The debate also stooped to name-calling, as Trump constantly referred to Rubio on Thursday night as “Little Marco” and labeled his other main rival, Texas Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzSenate nearing deal on defense bill after setback Congress's goal in December: Avoid shutdown and default Overnight Defense & National Security — US, Iran return to negotiating table MORE, “Lying Ted.”
Cruz — no stranger to robust debating tactics himself — asked plaintively at one point, “Is this the debate you want playing out in the general election?”
Magnifying potential problems for the GOP, the most outlandish clashes were highlighted in the following day’s media coverage, even as pundits criticized the tone.
“It’s not funny anymore,” MSNBC anchor Joe Scarborough, a former Republican congressman, said on Friday’s edition of “Morning Joe.”
Republican strategists agree, recalling that the debate preceding the clash in Detroit — a Feb. 25 event in Houston — was also noticeable for producing more heat than light.
“I don’t know how useful debates are going forward,” said one strategist, Matt Mackowiak, who also expressed qualms about the rambunctious crowds at recent debates. “The crowds really distract from the purpose of the debates themselves. We are getting into repetition at this point. I do think that there is damage being done.”
The capacity of debates to be counter-productive had been recognized by the Republican National Committee (RNC) before this year’s extraordinary cycle got underway.
There were around two dozen debates during the 2012 GOP primary. The result, RNC head Reince Priebus told the Washington Post in January 2015, was “like a dog-and-pony show” adding, “just because you’re a good debater doesn’t mean you are going to be a good president.”
There have been 11 debates so far in this cycle.
“Thank heavens that we have cut the debates in half from last time,” said another GOP strategist, Ron Bonjean. “Imagine having twice the amount of debates this time. Imagine how out of control that would get.”
While praising the importance of debates in general, Bonjean added that, “the last couple of debates have been nothing but name-calling and throwing mud and trying to tear each other’s house down. That type of rhetoric isn’t helpful to the party.”
The problem, some GOP insiders say, has its roots in the early part of the primary process. When Trump announced his candidacy in June last year, he was widely ridiculed by rivals and pundits alike.
Even as he led polls in the months before the primaries began, his biggest rivals such as Cruz and Rubio largely avoided attacking him, presumably calculating that he would implode.
Now that the opposite has occurred — Trump has won 10 contests to four for Cruz and one for Rubio — his opponents realize time is fast running out to stop him. Desperate times call for desperate measures.
“The voting window is closing and now they are throwing the kitchen sink out there — and that gets extremely messy,” said another Republican strategist, Ford O’Connell. “This is a complete result of these guys ignoring Trump. They failed Political Communications 101 — they allowed Trump to define himself before they defined him.”
Many within the GOP also fear that the front-runner’s sometimes outrageous behavior has the capacity to make the party less appealing as a whole to persuadable voters. And they fear that otherwise-substantive figures such as Rubio end up diminishing themselves when they try to play on Trump’s level.
“The debates are making the Republican Party and our candidates appeal small. That’s the real problem,” Mackowiak said.
He derided Rubio’s harsher tone in recent days, when the Floridian mocked Trump for his tan and other personal idiosyncrasies. Such tactics he suggested were akin to “a sugar high,” bringing short-term satisfaction to Rubio and other Trump opponents without helping over the longer run.
“I think Rubio does regret it because that is not the kind of candidate he is, and it’s not the kind of campaign he has been running,” Mackowiak said.
For now, Republicans opposed to Trump take solace from the fact that the debates should soon be over — unless, of course, a prolonged competitive race sees more clashes added.
Others find cause of optimism in the idea that, explosive though the debates may be, they could be forgotten well before November.
For the moment, though, the consensus is that the harm from the debates clearly outweighs the benefits.
“The debates have just become part of the Trump tornado,” said Bonjean.