A funny thing happened while the media were hyperventilating over Donald Trump's pugilistic style and whether he will be smacking his rivals at the Fox debate here.
Trump started pulling his punches.
Make no mistake, Donald is still his bombastic self, making the others look like shrinking violets. But in a series of interviews over the last week or so, as he has surged into an even greater first-place lead, the billionaire is toning it down just a bit.
Trump is even making nice with journalists he previously dismissed as losers and morons.
He says he's not going to attack anyone at Thursday night's debate, but will counterpunch only if necessary. And I take him at his word.
The dealmaker is smarter than his detractors believe. And that's why he is calibrating his words a tad more carefully.
Trump knows full well that his finger-in-the-eye persona has been a spectacular success—such a success that he has twice the support of Jeb Bush and Scott Walker in the latest Fox poll and other surveys. That means he’s reached a point of diminishing returns—each new slap at a Rick Perry or Lindsey Graham isn’t going to give him another big boost.
He can do just as well by attacking a broken system and selling himself as the brash businessman who will solve America’s ills.
But there’s a deeper calculation at work here. For all the punditry about Trump as a summer fling, his front-runner status suggests that he has an actual shot at winning the Republican nomination. And therefore, on that Cleveland stage, he has to be seen as a plausible president.
That’s why, in my view, Trump is being less outrageous.
He has delighted in ripping such journalistic critics as Chuck Todd, Charles Krauthammer and Washington Post columnist Chris Cillizza in disparaging terms. But he gave Todd an interview for “Meet the Press” on Sunday, tweeted “Thank you @krauthammer for your nice comments,” and sent Cillizza a note saying he’s actually starting to like the columnist.
None of this means that Trump will be singing kumbaya with Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Marco Rubio and the rest. And obviously, if Trump finds himself getting pounded, he will forcefully defend himself.
But Trump told Bill O’Reilly that he’s not coming in with a bare-knuckles approach: “I want to be right down the middle. I want to talk about the policy…
“I'm not looking to hurt anybody. I'm not looking to embarrass anybody. If I have to bring up deficiencies I will bring up deficiencies. But certainly I'm not looking to do that.”
Bringing up deficiencies: That may be one of the most decorous phrases Donald has used.
The man who kept “The Apprentice” on NBC for 14 seasons knows something about playing to the audience. He said on “Morning Joe” a couple of weeks back that one potential problem is that people might get tired of him. That may well explain why Trump is taking a little off the fastball, at least for now.
Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of "MediaBuzz" (Sundays 11 a.m.). He is the author of five books and is based in Washington. Follow him at @HowardKurtz. Click here for more information on Howard Kurtz.