Thursday night’s fractious presidential debate was the long Republican campaign condensed into little more than two hours: Donald Trump sailed above the other candidates, who mostly engaged in round-robin fighting that left each of them wounded and him largely unscathed.
As a result, the debate, the sixth in a nomination contest that has defied predictions, left a GOP establishment that fears disastrous repercussions from a Trump nomination no closer to finding a way to head him off, with the first balloting now a little more than two weeks away.
Trump repeatedly dismissed the nuanced arguments of his peers in favor of the blunt and forceful assertions that have made the billionaire the party’s national front-runner.
Declaring that "I will gladly accept the mantle of anger," he made clear that he understands what many of his establishment foes still seem not to — that much of what they see as weaknesses in his campaign are the wellsprings of its support. But in this debate, he also sanded some of his sharp edges with humor and worked to humanize himself.
His opponents, by contrast, often acting with visible desperation to attract attention as voters start making up their minds, seemed mostly intent on fighting among themselves. That precluded any single candidate from rising above the others.
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, tied with Trump in first-voting Iowa, tried to take on the businessman repeatedly, but found his complaints dismissed. He was himself pummeled by other candidates who want to replace him as Trump’s main nemesis.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, in particular, clashed angrily with Cruz over their positions on immigration and taxes.
Back when the campaign started, Rubio offered an upbeat new-generation pitch as the centerpiece of his campaign. But as Thursday night showed, he has stepped away from some of what made him distinctive as he has tried to conform to the GOP electorate’s mood. He now has adopted a much harsher tone and a bleaker assessment of the nation’s standing.
In the course of the conflict, he and Cruz emptied their opposition research files onto each other, with Rubio at one point moving from criticism of Cruz’s positions on immigration, trade, crop insurance and ethanol supports to accuse the Texas senator of having once called Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor who leaked U.S. secrets, "a great public servant."
"Edward Snowden is a traitor. And if I am president and we get our hands on him, he is standing trial for treason," Rubio said.
Republicans typically pick as their nominee the person who placed second the last time out, but this race has been nothing the party has seen before. The second-place finisher last time, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, has done so poorly that he was relegated to the three-candidate opening debate, which was held before the seven finalists took the stage.
Instead, it is Trump who has controlled the race. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released Thursday showed him in first place nationally, with the support of 33% of Republican primary voters. Cruz was second at 20%, Rubio at 13% and Ben Carson at 12%. No other candidate reached double digits.
The survey also showed a dramatic shift in Trump’s direction on another important measure. In March, 23% of GOP primary voters said they could see supporting him. Now it's 65%.
Trump and Cruz had maintained a friendly alliance through 2015, but that shattered in recent days and again Thursday, a reflection of the race in Iowa, which is closer than the national standings. The latest Des Moines Register/Bloomberg poll in that state had Cruz at 25% and Trump at 22%, with Rubio at 12%, Carson at 11% and the rest trailing behind.
The debate fisticuffs between the two Iowa leaders started with a days-old dispute about whether Cruz, born in Canada to an American mother, fulfilled the Constitution’s requirement that a president be "natural-born."
"I recognize that Donald is dismayed that his poll numbers are falling in Iowa," Cruz said, "but the facts and the law here are really quite clear."
Trump responded by citing a contrary view by Cruz’s former Harvard professor and jocularly suggested he was concerned lest there be complications if he picked Cruz as his vice presidential nominee.
Cruz again attempted to take on Trump when he defended an assessment days ago that Trump represented "New York values." Trump came back with a defense of his hometown that cited the world’s appreciation for the city after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attack.
"It was with us for months, the smell, the air," Trump said. "And we rebuilt downtown Manhattan, and everybody in the world watched and everybody in the world loved New York and loved New Yorkers. And I have to tell you, that was a very insulting statement that Ted made."
Trump’s debate presence has improved as the campaign has worn on; on Thursday, as he has in more recent debates, he seemed to shrug off many criticisms as if telling voters they should as well. His conflicts were far less fierce, for example, than those between Cruz and Rubio.
The two angrily debated the intent of Cruz’s tax plan — would it be a flat tax or a value-added, or VAT? — and later took up immigration. Rubio has argued that Cruz once favored the same legalization process that he has supported, if haltingly of late. In response to Cruz’s criticism, Rubio insisted that his immigration plan was concocted at a “dramatically different” time two years ago, before the Islamic State sought to recruit immigrants to the U.S.
But Cruz would not relent: “Radical Islamic terrorism was not invented 24 months ago,” he said, citing precursors to the Islamic State.
But even the emotional disputes between the two illustrated the difficulties of breaking out of the pack. As Rubio tried to press an argument against Cruz, he ran into a competitor for the establishment mantle, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who relegated him to silence with an arch put-down.
“No, you already had your chance, Marco, and you blew it,” Christie said.
That was the question left hanging at the conclusion: Have they all missed their chance to take down Trump?