The Republicans are still looking for the right someone to carry their banner into the election next November, and they're getting a pretty good idea now of who they don't want. That's the first step, after all, in making a choice, as any town belle could tell you.
We're still deep in the season of the outsiders, and Donald Trump and Ben Carson continue as the most successful of the tormentors of the elites. But soon, with the Iowa caucuses approaching, everyone will have to go inside. On the road eventually has to give way to opening night.
The Donald is still the king of blather and bluster, as entertaining and satisfying as ever to the millions who have had it up to here with the backing, filling, evading, dodging and dancing of politicians trying to avoid crunch time. Ben Carson, the family doctor everyone would like to have, has "the vision thing" but he doesn't say very much about how he can get from here to there with only the vision.
Neither of these two outsiders performed like the kings of the mountain the current polls make them out to be. Nobody can remember much of what the doc said in the second debate. The most memorable line from the Donald was the closest he has ever come to offering an apology to anyone for anything. Carly Fiorina fixed him with her schoolmarm's icy stare when the moderator described his earlier attempt to say that he didn't really say her face was "ugly," only that her persona is ugly. If that was an apology, delivered second hand, she was having none of it: "I think the women all over this country heard what Mr. Trump said." This got the loudest and longest applause of the night.
When Mr. Trump tried to make fresh amends, telling the audience that "she's got a beautiful face, and I think she's a beautiful woman," the expression on the beautiful woman's face did not change. The ice instantly froze the Donald, who was left to look and sound like a creep accustomed to courting women with cash, not the tender compliments the feminists insist they hate but real women covet.
His other bad-manners moment arrived when Jeb Bush, angered by the Donald's suggestion that he's soft on immigration because his wife was born in Mexico, said it was no fair bringing his wife into it and he would measure his wife against anybody's wife. He stopped short of saying his daddy could lick the Donald's daddy, but you could tell he was thinking it. And his brother George licked Saddam Hussein, too.
But Jeb was stronger, more alive, less concerned with civility and deportment than in the first debate in Cleveland. Slugging it out is what politics, especially presidential politics, is all about, and Jeb finally got the memo.
So did Marco Rubio and Chris Christie. Mr. Rubio continues to be the most polished of them all, setting out what he thinks in sentences and paragraphs without raising his voice or anyone's ire. The governor of New Jersey seemed to be more the Jersey guy he used to be, and remembered well for it. Ted Cruz, who aspires to be the dark avenging angel, looked darker and more eager to avenge. Scott Walker, who looked through the spring and summer as if he might be the man the Republicans were looking for, continues to be the man on a cruise. Some of his friends say he's biding his time, dozing with one eye open, keeping his powder dry choose your metaphor and waiting to fire when ready.
The contenders the pollsters put in the low digits, the 1, 2 and 3 per-centers didn't seem to move the needle. Rand Paul made the cut this time only after CNN, manipulating the poll numbers to accommodate the inclusion of Carly Fiorina, figured it was better to add than to subtract. He's an outsider, too, the only authentic isolationist who doesn't try hard to keep the sentiment disguised. Mike Huckabee, his performance skills polished in a Baptist pulpit and in a television studio, continues to be the man most comfortable before the cameras. He writes funny, cutting lines and delivers them with a preacher's confidence and conviction, but his day as a serious contender is done.
This American way of choosing a president puzzles and offends the rest of the world; even our English cousins don't always quite get it. But politics as entertainment is an honorable relic of the early days of the republic, when preachin' and politickin' was all there was. These "debates" are both undercard match-ups and important auditions for donors eager to place their bets. The beat goes on.