SIMI VALLEY, Calif. — "Anything could happen over the next few hours," CNN anchor Jake Tapper announced at the prime-time Republican presidential debate.
Anything did happen. Billionaire Donald Trump made faces and rolled his eyes. He mugged as a petulant little boy would mug. He insulted his opponents for no apparent reason. When Tapper asked the reality TV star to react to Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal's remark that Trump is "such a hothead" he shouldn't have his finger on the nuclear codes, Trump responded by proving Jindal correct. Trump answered: "Well, first of all, (Sen.) Rand Paul shouldn't even be on this stage. He's No. 11. He's got 1 percent in the polls, and how he got up here — there's far too many people." Then he said he is successful and entertaining. And he has a great temperament: "Believe me, my temperament is very good, very calm."
So why is Trump ahead in the polls? I think he appeals to some 30 percent of GOP voters (according to the RealClearPolitics polling average) because he acts the way we all thought when we were children that the superrich would behave. He goes to Iowa and invites children he doesn't know to take rides on his private helicopter. He is rude when he feels like being rude. He calls people whatever name he feels like calling them. Then he claims he never meant what he said. He doesn't hesitate to use his clout to push people around. He never seems to second-guess himself. The world is his oyster.
Sometimes the act is fun. Always it gets old. It got old when he made that gratuitous swipe against Paul. "He was asked whether or not he would be capable and it would be in good hands to be in charge of the nuclear weapons, and all of a sudden, there's a sideways attack at me," Paul observed.
It got old last week when Rolling Stone reported on a crack Trump made about Carly Fiorina's looks: "Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that? Can you imagine that, the face of our next president?" When Tapper asked about the remark and mentioned Trump's later walk-back (Trump said he was talking about Fiorina's persona), the former Hewlett-Packard CEO responded, "I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said."
Fiorina and Paul came out ahead because they didn't shrink from challenging the bully. More important were the substantive points they made. I'd call Fiorina the winner. For one thing, she knows how to talk. She challenged the Washington establishment: "A fish swims in water. It doesn't know it's water." Over time and in the face of challenges, Fiorina noted, character reveals itself.
Paul stood out when he pushed for states' rights on marijuana and offered himself as the noninterventionist Republican. Ohio Gov. John Kasich smartly positioned himself as the governor who wants to get things done and make America "a nation that solves problems." Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida would tackle immigration in stages — not with one big silly bill. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie pushed entitlement reform. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush even had some energy. This is a strong Republican field.