In case there was any confusion about what version of Donald Trump was going to show up for the eleventh GOP debate in Detroit, we found out very early on in this debate that the presidential Donald Trump of Super Tuesday is a vague and distant memory.
Thursday night saw the Donald Trump who defends the size of his hands by saying there was “no problem” with the size of his hands or anything else. "Look at those hands, are they small hands?" Trump said. "And, [Rubio] referred to my hands -- 'if they're small, something else must be small.' I guarantee you there's no problem. I guarantee."
This comment was hardly presidential and perhaps even beyond our newly increased capacity for “telling it like it is.” But more than that, Thursday night capped off a day that had Trump rattled from start to finish.
Mitt Romney’s speech Thursday morning where he called Trump “a danger to America’s future”, “a phony who is playing the American public for suckers” and a man whose “imagination must not be married to real power” threw Trump into a tailspin. He spent 15 minutes railing on Romney as a “loser” at a rally in Maine on Thursday afternoon and began the debate on a similar note.
It didn’t get much better for Trump as the night progressed.
Chris Wallace and Megyn Kelly threw Trump off a number of times, most notably when Kelly played video of Trump contradicting himself on his stance over the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.
He also struggled to explain his off the record conversation with the New York Times, where he allegedly said that he could be flexible on his tough immigration stance, had trouble with attacks over Trump University and his confused foreign policy where he offered that the military will do whatever he tells them to do including killing the families of terrorists.
But for all his trouble Thursday night, I don’t envision Trump suffering much at the polls for this. He’s beaten the odds before and his big wins in New Hampshire, South Carolina, Nevada and throughout Super Tuesday have demonstrated that Trump’s voters are committed to him. Yes, Marco Rubio may be the second choice of a majority of voters, but he’s not their first choice – Trump is with close to 50 percent of the vote in the latest polls.
As for Rubio and Cruz, they certainly played a meaningful part in putting Trump on shaky ground. Rubio was quick on his feet with his ad-libs and Cruz’s repeated attack that Trump needs to wait his turn and not interrupt everyone seemed to resonate with the audience.
Cruz had his best debate thus far, especially because he generally stayed above the fray. And in contrast, Rubio didn’t benefit much from mixing it up with Trump.
As a result, there wasn’t much opportunity for real policy talk as each exchange led to a back and forth over the veracity of each candidate’s statement and, more often than not, to Trump’s statements on the issues both on Thursday night and in the past.
Kasich perhaps benefitted the most from the evening as he was largely left out of the nitpicking. He was able to argue that he’s the only candidate interested in unifying Americans and touted his support by 700 foreign policy experts. His positions on immigration and gay marriage are the most in step with Americans. On Thursday evening he looked like he knew that well and that he may be lucky enough to walk out of the race as the nominee while the rest of the remaining candidates tear each other apart.
Will the polls change much from this debate? I would doubt it. But I also don't think that Americans will forget the evening in Detroit any time soon. And that may matter down the line.
Douglas E. Schoen has served as a pollster for President Bill Clinton. He has more than 30 years experience as a pollster and political consultant. He is also a Fox News contributor and co-host of "Fox News Insiders" Sundays on Fox News Channel at 7 pm ET. He is the author of 12 books. His latest is "The Nixon Effect: How Richard Nixon’s Presidency Fundamentally Changed American Politics" (Encounter Books, February 2016). Follow Doug on Twitter @DouglasESchoen.