Much of the media is convinced that Donald Trump had a lousy debate in South Carolina.
“Trump Bludgeoned In Nasty GOP Debate,” said Politico, whose “insiders” (who utterly failed to predict the Trump phenomenon) said The Donald had “flopped.”
The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza branded Trump one of the debate’s losers, with Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio (and moderator John Dickerson) the winners.
Rich Lowry, whose National Review has savaged Trump, offered this frustrated headline: “Trump Half-Crazed, But Does Anyone Care?”
My own view is that while Cruz and Bush landed some blows, Trump punched back quite hard. The reason the CBS debate, and the campaign, turned so ugly is that the other Republicans know this is probably their best shot at derailing the Trump express.
I was surprised that Trump used as much of his high energy as he did to go after Jeb, who trails him badly in the polls. Bush may have gotten under his skin in this debate. Cruz held back for the first 90 minutes, then seemed to unload every anti-Trump attack line he had been saving up all at once.
Keep in mind that the media have often turned thumbs down on Trump’s debates and controversial comments, only to discover that they didn’t hurt him among Republican voters. About the only concession he’s made to South Carolina is to announce that he’ll stop cursing.
Of course, Trump did attack George W. Bush over 9/11 and the Iraq war and went a step further, saying he and his administration lied about Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction. Trump also defended Planned Parenthood’s non-abortion services. I’m sure we’ll hear more about this, but it also plays to his self-description as a “common-sense conservative,” not a doctrinaire one.
For all the ink spilled on South Carolina as the land of dirty tricks, none of the punches thrown have been below the belt. Unless you count Cruz having to pull an ad that featured a soft-core porn actress, a silly controversy that became a distraction.
The attacks on Trump have gotten so noisy that they may have trouble breaking through the static. And they mostly recycle past charges that haven’t stuck.
A Cruz ad accuses The Donald of having been a sleazy businessman. Since Trump has said he gave big bucks to politicians to help him on the real estate front, the charge is not exactly new.
The ad says Trump has abused eminent domain for his own profit, dramatized by footage of an elderly widow whose home the billionaire wanted for an Atlantic City casino parking lot. Left unsaid is that he offered the woman $1 million and the project fizzled in any case. After Mitt Romney was portrayed as unfeeling for laying off thousands, a single example feels small.
(Trump responds in tweet form that he might have to sue Cruz for not being a natural-born citizen.)
Bush’s Super PAC also looks backward, to Trump’s shifting position on abortion and his insults directed at John McCain and Megyn Kelly. (Trump mocks him for bringing in his mother and now his brother as surrogates.)
Meanwhile, Rubio makes a present-tense charge, portraying Trump as having no foreign policy experience other than building hotels abroad.
The recitations of Trump’s past heresies have been tried several times, to no avail. His supporters don’t seem to care that he once gave money to Democrats, took liberal positions in New York or worked what he now calls a corrupt system as a businessman. In their eyes, his successful real estate career is a plus.
As the media have learned, when it comes to Trump, the wayback machine usually malfunctions.
Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of "MediaBuzz" (Sundays 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. ET). He is the author of five books and is based in Washington. Follow him at @HowardKurtz. Click here for more information on Howard Kurtz.