Can North Korea's missiles deliver an atomic weapon to the U.S. mainland? Maybe.

Nude photos! Innuendo! Infidelity! Is nothing out of bounds in the GOP primary?

After years of dysfunction and polarization in Washington, it’s understandable that many voters are looking for a leader from outside the underperforming political establishment. But really, couldn’t they look up instead of down?

The contest for the Republican presidential nomination, already beset by personal attacks and vulgarity, hit a new low Friday after the National Enquirer claimed that private detectives had compiled a “dirt file” on Sen. Ted Cruz with reports of five extramarital affairs. Rather than simply ignoring the tabloid, Cruz responded publicly and at length, saying the piece was false and that his GOP rival Donald Trump had planted it.

This melodrama followed a week during which Cruz’s supporters circulated a semi-nude photo of Trump’s wife, and then Trump threatened to “spill the beans” on Cruz’s wife.  The jabs got under Cruz’s skin — which was almost certainly the point — leading him to denounce Trump as a “sniveling coward,” “sleazy” and, well, worse. Trump sailed along unperturbed, denying any connection to the Enquirer piece on the man he calls “Lyin’ Ted Cruz” and saying he hoped it wasn’t true. Naturally, he also noted that the Enquirer had been “right about O.J. Simpson, John Edwards and many others.”

Afraid to alienate Trump’s supporters, Cruz had looked the other way through much of the campaign as Trump belittled and insulted other candidates, journalists, even entire populations. But now that Trump’s trademark personal derision has been trained on him and his family, Cruz evidently has recovered his sense of outrage. Cruz called Trump’s tactics Nixonian — an accusation that Ben Carson leveled against the Cruz campaign just last month — but the tenor of the GOP primaries has been more reminiscent of the 19th century, when candidates routinely attacked each other in deeply personal terms.

It’s depressing and embarrassing. But this is what happens when voters embrace a demagogic and unqualified candidate who trades in insults more often than ideas, and his opponents wait too long to push back. We’ve watched this campaign take up menstruation, penis sizes, incontinence and now extramarital sex. The mind reels at the prospect of what might be next.

The media are certainly to blame for obsessing on Trump’s bullying style and nasty throwaway lines instead of the substance of his campaign, what little of it there is to be found. But bear in mind that Cruz was the one who brought up the Enquirer piece at his press conference Friday. The infection has spread, and even Trump rivals don’t recognize that they’re spreading it. Granted, the campaign is a change from business as usual in Washington. But it isn’t the change voters should be looking for.

Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World