It is possible that Donald Trump will look back on the first Republican presidential debate Thursday night in Cleveland and wish he had not taken part?
That notion seems absurd at first glance. Taking the stage for the season’s first clash was widely seen as the zenith of Trump’s campaign to date, if not the validation for all his political thrusts dating back to the 1990s.
Laughed at just months ago, The Donald was not only included within the official GOP field but featured literally at its vortex. By virtue of his lead in multiple polls of Republicans and Republican-leaners, he was No. 1 and the dominant focus of media attention for weeks.
Yet at the end of the two hours, after jousting with Fox News moderators and responding to the jibes of several rivals, Trump was still the star of the show but no longer a show unto himself. As the two hours wore on, the headliner became part of the cast, waiting his turn to speak. And as one rival after another had opportunity to shine in his own right, most chose not to engage Trump so as not to share their moment with him.
That left the Fox moderators to keep Trump regularly in the mix, which all three did with notable persistence. When Megyn Kelly asked about Trump’s myriad insults to various women, Trump made a rather petulant reference to Kelly herself not being “very nice” to him.
The evening began with a challenge to Trump from Fox newsman Bret Baier, who wanted to know if anyone on stage was unwilling to commit to supporting the eventual Republican nominee in 2016. Trump immediately raised his right hand. That caused both boos and a few cheers to erupt from the live crowd in the Quicken Loans Center, the arena where the Republican Party will nominate its ticket next summer.
Trump said he could not pledge to support the nominee “if it’s not me,” adding that it would have to be someone he respected. But he did say that he would be proud to run as a Republican if the GOP was good enough to nominate him.
That should not have come as a surprise, given his many statements of independence in the past, but it had a different ring to it on this stage on this night. And it might well resonate with many Republicans in the days to come, given the likelihood that an independent bid in 2016 would deliver the White House to the Democrats.
In the swift-paced rounds of questions and answers that followed, Trump tussled with Rand Paul about single-payer health care and wrangled with Jeb Bush about the tone of Trump’s own rhetoric. But even at his most outlandish, he could not eclipse the other personalities on stage in the same way he has done all summer.
It could be that in the course of formally entering the fray, Trump lost some of the altitude and separation he has created by being above it all. While leading the pack in every sense going into the debate, he was also drawn down into it over the course of the evening.
What has allowed Trump to defy the usual political laws of gravity is the uniqueness of his anti-politician posture. He was the guy who didn’t talk like a politician. But as one debate watcher commented on Fox immediately after the debate, Trump wound up side-stepping questions like the biggest politician of all.
Following the debate, Trump may return to controlled appearances, friendly rallies and one-candidate news conferences. In all these venues, he excels at dominating. But there are to be nine more debates, and countless media interviews lie ahead. Can The Donald continue to make up the rules as he goes along?
The sharpest exchange of the night did not even involve The Donald. It stemmed from Sen. Rand Paul making a brief speech about his opposition to phone records being gathered by the National Security Agency. When he said he wanted to collect records of terrorists, not citizens, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie interrupted to ask how Paul would tell one number from another.
Christie used the issue to burnish his anti-terrorism credentials as a U.S. attorney in the years after the Sept. 11 attacks and to beard Paul as another legislator in another subcommittee. Paul fired back a reference to Christie hugging President Obama during the 2012 Sandy weather crisis.
Others on stage found various ways to hold the camera when they could. Ohio Gov. John Kasich, the 16th candidate to enter the race, benefited from a friendly local crowd and a compact message about balancing budgets and creating jobs. The last participant to poll his way in, Kasich made the most of his moment and clearly has many more to come.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who has been running third in national polls, talked about winning three times in a blue state and about hardening his stance on immigration after talking to “the American people.”
Sen. Ted Cruz talked about religious liberty and his father’s conversion to Christianity, prompting Walker to talk about his Baptist faith as well. The only actual ordained minister on stage, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, also stressed his moral convictions in talking about the Planned Parenthood controversy.
Neurosurgeon Ben Carson had a neat formulation for his closing statement, suggesting his status as a physician would be appropriate for national leadership. It was a charming summation with a neat barb in it, but it was perhaps the only time he broke through all evening.
Sen. Marco Rubio, the youngest candidate in the field, made his usual points about understanding and representing the future. If it’s about experience, he said, Hillary Clinton will be the next president. Contrast would be the key, he said, his expression the embodiment of “fresh face.”
Earlier Thursday, seven additional candidates who did not make the cut for the evening debate met in a slightly less confrontational format, also in Cleveland, also on Fox. Here the apparent standout was businesswoman Carly Fiorina, who would have been the visual highlight in any event as the only participant in fuchsia.
Fiorina was controlled, crisp and gimlet-eyed. And while she did not have a chance onstage with Trump, her question for him was perhaps the best of either session.
“Since he has changed his mind on amnesty, on health care and on abortion,” Fiorina said, “I would just ask, what are the principles by which he will govern?”