Grace Segers looks at the winners, losers, and potential consequences of Thursday’s GOP debate
The Republican debate on Thursday repeatedly devolved into little more than a shouting match, with insults and the occasional vulgarity spewed by the four men jockeying to become their party’s nominee. Since Super Tuesday, the Republican Party establishment has been desperately trying to halt the momentum of Donald Trump, the current front runner. In a speech on Thursday, Mitt Romney, the former Governor of Massachusetts and 2012 Republican nominee, attacked Trump as “a phony.” In a speech held after Romney’s statement, Trump denounced Romney as a “failed candidate” showing the growing friction between Trump and those frantic to stop him. The atmosphere going into the debate on Thursday, moderated by Fox News, was highly charged, with three of the candidates on the offensive and Trump, as usual, in the foreground.
The debate began with a verbal tussle between Trump and Senator Marco Rubio, who seemed eager to prove his relevance after a poor showing on Super Tuesday. This argument soon became crude: within the first few moments of the debate, Trump referred to a double entendre Rubio had made regarding Trump’s “small hands” corresponding to another “small” part of his anatomy. Trump asserted that his hands had no relation to the size of his other appendages. “I guarantee you,” Trump said, “There’s no problem.” It was only a few minutes in, and a debate between the men running for the highest office in the United States had devolved into vulgarities worthy of a locker room.
Rubio earnestly attempted to highlight Trump’s weaknesses, citing in particular Trump University, a failed business endeavor by the real estate magnate that resulted in multiple lawsuits against him. However, these attacks often seemed desperate and were often petty; given that Rubio only won Minnesota on Super Tuesday, his argument that the Republican base should consolidate around him grows weaker. Interestingly, the Florida senator often came across as Governor Chris Christie did in the debate prior to the New Hampshire primary when he attacked Rubio mercilessly, despite having little to no path to the nomination himself. Similarly, in this debate, Rubio seemed to be taking the political murder-suicide route to stopping Trump, even if that wasn’t his intent.
Senator Ted Cruz, on the other hand, tends to shine on the debate stage. On Thursday, Cruz utilized his skills as a debater to defend his record as a conservative, and to appeal to Trump’s anti-establishment base. He scored some significant points against Trump, particularly when he called for the businessman to release a tape of an off-the-record interview with The New York Times. By portraying his rival as secretive, and worse, an ally of the liberal media, Cruz insinuated that Trump’s untrustworthiness may be detrimental to the American people. Trump has been able to succeed because his base believes that he is willing to fight for their cause; if he is made to look petty, and even antagonistic towards average American conservatives, this could diminish his support.
Governor John Kasich had a similarly good night at the debate, benefitting from the winnowing of the Republican field of candidates. By refusing to use ad hominem attacks against his fellow candidates, Kasich seemed to be above the fray, and refreshingly calm. It’s unlikely that his strong performance will translate into a victory, but Kasich is on track to win his home state, Ohio, on 15th March, which could keep him in the race until the convention.
Trump was incredibly uneven in this debate. He fielded attacks from his fellow candidates throughout, especially Rubio. He also faced sharp questions from the extremely capable moderators, Megyn Kelly, Bret Baier, and Chris Wallace. They used video evidence to back up assertions that Trump had changed his position on numerous subjects, and often cited statistics which were antithetical to his claims. Put on the defensive, Trump turned nasty, calling Rubio “Little Marco” multiple times throughout the debate, and once referring to Cruz as “Lyin’ Ted.” It’s uncertain if his debate performance will in any way halt his momentum, but it’s clear that the Republican establishment is finished accommodating his campaign.
Ultimately, the biggest loser of the night was the Republican Party.
The debate was loud and often crude, with candidates doing little to tailor their visions to the general electorate. The deep divide between Trump and the Republican Party, and the schisms within the Party over whether to support Rubio, Cruz, or Kasich, were highlighted. It’s uncertain whether this debate will influence the primaries on 8th and 15th of March. However, it’s clear that if the Republican Party does not end this pattern of self-cannibalization, it will likely face dire consequences in
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