“No, I’m not — no, no no. I don’t repeat myself. I don’t repeat myself.”
That was Donald Trump amid a forehead-slapping exchange with Marco Rubio in which the latter challenged the frontrunner to provide specifics on how he’d reboot the American health care system in the wake of Obamacare’s denouement. Trump’s response, following a pattern which played itself out all night long, was paper-thin — he touted the virtues of making health insurance available across state lines, but couldn’t come up with much else despite having a plan on his website with other elements — and Rubio chided him for it. Whereupon Trump stressed again the virtues of an interstate health market, and Rubio then landed a haymaker by suggesting that Trump sounded as though he was repeating himself.
It was a bit of a cheap shot, but given Trump’s having lingered on Rubio’s disastrous exchange with Chris Christie in the debate before the New Hampshire primary it worked for the Florida senator. And when Trump attacked Rubio for having repeated himself five times in the exchange with Christie Rubio had one of the best rejoinders in modern American political history, noting that Trump had “repeated yourself five times five seconds ago!”
Rubio, whose value proposition to date has been that he’s the most electable Republican left in the field but can’t point as yet to a single state he’s likely to win, unloaded everything in his arsenal on Trump and quite a bit of it landed. He hit Trump on using illegal immigrants from Poland in the construction of Trump Tower, and noted that if Trump were to build that wall on the Mexican border the way he’s built in the past he’d be using illegals for it. He went after Trump for running a “fake university,” which ended up being a prominent topic of conversation. He hammered him on Israel. He even trashed his privileged upbringing: “If Donald Trump hadn’t inherited $200 million, he’d be selling $10 watches in Manhattan.”
And Rubio laid those punches down with a smile, looking like he was enjoying himself doing it.
Trump wasn’t a quivering mess amid the assault. Not by any means. He delivered his usual repertoire of locker-room comebacks, including that Rubio is a “choke artist” and “has never hired anybody.”
Moreover, it wasn’t just Rubio laying licks on The Donald. Ted Cruz, who started the debate off in a rather low-key fashion, soon took to pounding him mercilessly on substance — he hung Trump’s past support for leftist Democrats around his neck, ripped him on Israel, popped him on Libya (and got a denial from Trump that he’d ever supported the ouster of Muammar Qaddafi, a denial that was almost immediately debunked by BuzzFeed complete with video of precisely such support), gave him trouble on immigration and hounded him on the question of his taxes — to which Trump responded he can’t release tax returns because he’s being audited, which is patent nonsense.
And Cruz also laid out a political scenario which for any candidate other than Trump would have to be disqualifying; namely that there is to be a trial in July in which he’s being sued by the students of Trump University for some $40 million that they allege they were defrauded out of, and the public-relations nightmare of his having to take time off the campaign trail to testify as a defendant at that trial is something no Republican voter should want to expose the party’s nominee to. Cruz might have overextended himself when pointing to polls showing him tied with or beating Hillary Clinton while Trump loses to her, which left him open to Trump’s response that he’s beating Cruz in the polls. But all in all, Cruz won virtually every exchange with Trump; even the ones where the frontrunner attacked him.
It was one of the most vicious debates in the nation’s history, even despite two of the five candidates acting as though there was no urgency to dislodge the leader. John Kasich spent the debate running, it appeared, for re-election as governor of Ohio and didn’t engage with any of the other candidates. And Ben Carson spent his time grousing about his lack of airtime, though that complaint did give him the chance of having the most entertaining line of the night when he asked for someone to please attack him so he’d have a chance to respond.
Trump lost the debate by any objective standard. He lost on substance and he lost on optics; for the first time he didn’t look like the candidate who was having the most fun on stage. But does it make a difference?
No. It doesn’t.
The debate, for all its fireworks, changes nothing. Trump has some three in 10 voters, Rubio and Cruz have two in 10 apiece, Kasich and Carson combine for one in 10 and another two in 10 are up for grabs but will likely be split among the five. And nobody is getting out, because Rubio’s camp is convinced he can outlast the field and ultimately best Trump in a brokered convention, Cruz believes he has the money and grassroots support to beat Trump over the long haul, Kasich thinks he’s going to win all the northern states later in the campaign, and Carson just likes to run for president.
So while it was a rotten night for the real estate magnate, he can rest easy — because so long as he’s got four opponents rather than just one or two, he’s still going to be the leader.