Millions of people have voted and hundreds of delegates have been allocated in the Republican presidential contest, yet the other candidates are still grasping for ways to take down Donald Trump, the most confounding opponent any of them has faced.
If there was a coherent anti-Trump strategy concocted for Thursday’s presidential debate, it was neither well-executed nor successful.
But the voters who have flocked to Trump this election season see him as the ultimate outsider. And if they cared about his foreign policy expertise, he would have been out of the presidential contest months ago.
Instead he’s the GOP front-runner, and nothing that happened Thursday night is likely to change that.
Part of the difficulty for the non-Trumps on Thursday was that they had competing -- sometimes conflicting -- objectives
Cruz, the senator from Texas, wanted to firmly define himself as the chief Trump opponent, which had him calling for unity behind his candidacy as much as targeting Trump.
Sen. Rubio of Florida wanted to regain his equilibrium in hopes of a magical resurrection in Tuesday’s primary in his home state -- or perhaps just a restoration of his dignity after two weeks of comments about "small hands" and other body parts.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich wanted to continue his positive approach as he aims at other primaries next week in his home state and in Illinois.
But for all the desperation that should have been building as Tuesday’s contests neared, there was no sense of agita onstage. No one mentioned Trump’s business difficulties, which dominated the last debate. There were relatively few frontal assaults on him. There were no personal insults or anatomical references. Trump himself was remarkably well-behaved, and the other candidates seemed low-energy.
Trump didn’t necessarily win the debate, but he departed the stage the winner.
The struggle to dethrone Trump that the other candidates and the extended Republican establishment has waged has been marked by frustration that the rules of politics have been tossed out the window this year. The upending of the campaign is a finely honed act of revenge by voters desperately angry—because of a spotty economic recovery, because of the nation’s changing face, and because politicians have ginned up their fears, promised change, and failed to live up to those promises.
That has given enormous strength to a candidate like Trump, whose appeal is outside the confines of normal elective politics. His is a gut-level campaign that both feeds on and benefits from a sense that America isn’t what it used to be, and won’t be that place again without a dramatic change.
In an exchange about the Mideast, he offered what serves as Trump’s theme on all topics.
"We don’t fight like we used to fight," he said. "We used to fight to win."
It is an argument without any nuance at all, and it wallops the nuanced, technical, political-speak that emanates from the other candidates.
In a long back-and-forth about Social Security, Cruz sought to portray himself as the candidate for those angry at Washington.
"You ought to be asking is who is willing to take on Washington?" Cruz said. "It's easy to have language: 'I'm fed up with the corruption in Washington.' But if you have a candidate who has been funding liberal Democrats and funding the Washington establishment, it's very hard to imagine how suddenly this candidate is going to take on Washington."
Later, he reiterated the argument by saying that Trump "hasn’t pointed to a single special interest he’s willing to take on."
The problem for Cruz is that few things are more outsider than a skyscraper-building, reality-television-starring billionaire wheeler-dealer who delights in flouting convention and, often, good taste. To intensify the difficulty, Trump has managed to retain his outsider bluntness while becoming a far better politician, which he demonstrated by rhetorically putting Cruz not into the outsiders' camp but that of Washington denizens who feed at the donors’ troughs.
"I will tell you this," Trump said, "I know the system far better than anybody else, and I know the system is broken."
"I'm the only one up here that's going to be able to fix that system because that system is wrong."
In one swoop, he inoculated himself by acknowledging his involvement in a corrupt system even as he portrayed himself as the person who could fix it – the equivalent for campaign finance of Richard Nixon reopening relations with China after a career of fighting communism.
Cruz at the moment has the best shot at eventually going one-on-one with Trump in a debate. In that format, he hopes he would be able to knock Trump off stride. That didn’t happen Thursday.
Trump refused to take the bait offered by Cruz and, most surprisingly, Rubio. The two had insulted each other for weeks, with Trump taunting the senator as "little Marco" and Rubio joking that Trump had wet his pants at a previous debate. In interviews before and after the debate, Rubio said those exchanges, including the now infamous comment about Trump’s "small hands," had been a mistake that had embarrassed him in the eyes of his children.
On Thursday civility ruled, and most of their disputes had to do with foreign policy, which is not top of mind for many voters and confusing to others.
Trump kept his side simple and blunt, affirming his statement that Muslims hate Americans.
"You can be politically correct if you want. I don't want to be so politically correct," Trump declared. "I like to solve problems. We have a serious, serious problem of hate."
"I'm not interested in being politically correct," Rubio replied. "I'm interested in being correct."
The line was crisp and memorable, but unlikely to change many minds: voters, or at least those who back Trump, aren’t seeing things the way Rubio does. Polls of Republican voters this year have consistently found strong support for Trump’s proposal to bar Muslims from entering the country.
Tuesday’s primaries will clarify the Republican race; if either Rubio or Kasich loses his home state, that would end his campaign. If both lose, Cruz would become what he repeatedly implored debate viewers to make him: the sole remaining Trump challenger. By then, however, Trump would have won so many delegates as to make Cruz’s challenge nearly impossible.
Already, at the debate’s end, Trump was pushing for unity behind him, promising that he could win the White House.
Cruz had belittled Trump at one point as someone who expected supporters to work for him, and not the other way around. Whether by plan or not, Trump responded in his closing statement.
"The Republican Party has a great chance to embrace millions of people that it's never known before," he said, making the contest about them and not him. "They're coming by the millions. We should seize that opportunity.... These are people that will win us the election and win it easily.
"So I just say, embrace these millions of people that now for the first time ever love the Republican Party. And unify. Be smart and unify."
It was a rebuke that felt like a warning, or at least a reminder of where the party’s potency has come from this election year, despite all the efforts to cast Trump aside.