The most overhyped debate in history opened with a shock: loud boos for Donald Trump, the only candidate who raised his hand to say he wouldn't rule out running as an independent.
That would be the last time the audience at the first Republican presidential debate would pan Trump. Even with Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul accusing him of handing the election to Hillary Clinton, it wasn't long before Trump got the hall cheering.
He waved off his refusal to rule out a third-party candidacy: "We'll win … and I'll be running as the Republican nominee." With a big chunk of primary voters and all of Trump's supporters enraged at how the party has treated them, how much does threatening to abdicate cost him now? Surely if Trump goes the route of Ross Perot, he will hand the White House to the Democrats. But that's a long way off. It's not going to scratch his Teflon coat now.
That first exchange presaged the rest of the evening, which consisted of two parts: the Trump debate and everyone else's. The moderators were toughest on him, but it didn't have much effect. Whenever they tossed him into a hole with their facts, he hurled their facts back at them, crawled out and gobbled up the most airtime more than 11 minutes in doing so.
While he purloined time, he didn't always steal the show, at least from Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. Rubio is a raw political talent, as smooth as Fred Astaire, as smart as a whip and as soothing as a warm bath. He never raised his voice or spoke too fast. In the race to show humble beginnings, he calmly said how his father worked behind a bar so that he could be standing on that stage in Cleveland.
Bailing on immigration reform efforts last year, Rubio was applauded last night when he showed sympathy for those folks who for 15 years paid lawyers but never got their papers. He didn't slip into sanctimony answering the evening's "God Question," so-called by Fox News moderator Megyn Kelly. He noted that "God blessed Republicans with very good candidates. Democrats can't even find one."
The other winner was Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who got into the race weeks ago and squeaked onto the stage. He refused to take the bait of moderator Chris Wallace and criticize Trump, instead praising him for touching a nerve with those who feel left behind. In part because he had the home-court advantage, and in part because he has a record of accomplishment in a difficult Midwestern state (unlike Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who produced fewer than half of the 250,000 jobs he promised), Kasich had the crowd on his side at every pass. More than once, Kasich got in his stats of 350,000 new jobs and an $8 billion deficit that became a $2 billion surplus.
The Republican base doesn't like anyone who accepts Obamacare's Medicaid expansion funds, but the crowd approved Kasich's explanation that Saint Ronald Reagan did the same thing. In a roomful of Republicans determined to repeal Obamacare, Kasich was cheered when he said he used the money to save money: treating the mentally ill (who cost $22,000 a year sitting in prison), rehabbing the drug-addicted and getting the working poor out of expensive emergency rooms.
A Catholic-turned-Christian-evangelical (after his parents were killed in a car accident), Kasich got the question on gay marriage and turned it into the night's emotional moment. In his son-of-a-mailman's voice, he said: "Look, I'm an old-fashioned person here, and I happen to believe in traditional marriage. But I've also said that the court has ruled." He went on: "And guess what? I just went to a wedding of a friend of mine who happens to be gay. Because somebody doesn't think the way I do doesn't mean that I can't care about them or I can't love them. So if one of my daughters happened to be that, of course I would love them and I would accept them."
The country didn't know Kasich before last night, and now they do. They knew former Gov. Jeb Bush and now they must wonder if he is in fighting shape. He looked uncomfortable to the point of sadness. He ran out of steam, sometimes in mid-answer. He needed to get right on his brother's Iraq war (he blamed Obama for the current mess), his family name, and Common Core (those federal standards for education that are poison to the base) and he didn't. He may have been gun-shy, having been so gaffe-prone, including last week when he when he let Hillary Clinton get in jabs and lost by not winning.
There were no oops moments, but some candidates got lost. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz proved why even his friends don't like him. Walker, running second to Trump, cemented his pro-life credentials by insisting there is no need for an abortion exception to save the life of the mother because there are other unnamed ways to save her life. He faded when questioned about his promise to create 250,000 new jobs in Wisconsin. He held his own but didn't stand out, and neither did former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, he who accused Obama of showing Jews to the oven doors. The genial Baptist minister has lost all the warmth he showed in his first race.
At times it seemed the 10 candidates had a secret pact to avoid Republican-on-Republican violence, but New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul broke it. Christie accused Paul of blowing hot air at subcommittee hearings over secret government surveillance when he, Christie, was on the front lines after Sept. 11. Paul used that opening to speculate that Christie didn't mind giving the president everyone's personal phone records because, of course, he hugged the guy and might again. In defending his record of deficits, pension-fund failures and bond-rating downgrades, Christie's best retort was to say, "If you think it's bad now, you should have seen it when I got there."
The real debate was the one between Trump and the moderators. In the category of "what doesn't kill me makes me strong," Trump survived accusations from Kelly that would have killed any other candidate. She listed the awful names he'd called women fat pigs and slobs among them but before she finished, he interjected that he was only referring to Rosie O'Donnell, a former TV host almost as pugnacious as Trump himself, which got a big laugh. It's no laughing matter, and his piggishness toward women is of a piece with his flip-flop on single-payer health insurance and abortion.
It must bother his supporters at some level, but not so much that it cools their ardor for him. Even when moderator Wallace pointed out that declaring bankruptcy is not a victimless act in Trump's most recent bankruptcy involving an Atlantic City, N.J., casino, 1,000 employees were laid off and lenders lost more than $1 billion Trump shot back, saying how naive it was to think that lenders were "sweet" and not "total killers," and that it was smart business to get out of Atlantic City when he did. What he's done for himself, he will do for America: "This country right now owes $19 trillion, and they need somebody like me to straighten out that mess."
Trump stumbled at the debate (he had to pay Hillary Clinton to come to his wedding, he couldn't prove his claims that Mexico sends its criminals to the U.S., he insulted way more women than just O'Donnell). Fact-checkers may catch up with him and his Teflon may soon crack, but he didn't self-destruct in that arena. Trump will fade, as everyone but Trump predicts, but predictions of his death so far have been greatly exaggerated.