Were Donald Trump a typical presidential candidate, he might have suffered from his inability in Tuesday’s debate to respond to a question about the “nuclear triad.” Presidents are, after all, expected to know what would happen if they ordered the nation’s most powerful weapons launched.
At the very least, when Marco Rubio explained the term — the U.S. can deliver nuclear warheads by plane, submarine or ground-based missiles — the Florida senator might have been more barbed with a different candidate.
“Maybe a lot of people haven’t heard that terminology before,” Rubio said, instead, without a hint of a smirk.
But as the 2016 presidential contest has amply demonstrated, Trump became and has stayed the national front-runner not on his policy chops but on his gut-level connection with the party’s most aggrieved voters.
And as the debate showed, the hold that Trump has on a plurality of the Republican electorate continues to inspire fear in his closest competitors.
The candidates who now pose the stiffest challenge to Trump — Rubio and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz — made no effort to capitalize on his lack of knowledge; they continued to play nice in hopes of securing voters who might desert him.
Instead Jeb Bush, a single-digit striver with nothing to lose, and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who barely qualified for Tuesday night’s session, took on the front-runner.
The debate’s most brutal exchanges were between Cruz and Rubio, competing fiercely for the space below Trump with sharp clashes on security, immigration and Mideast policy, battles that drew sarcastic ripostes from other candidates.
As a reminder of how definitively Trump has commanded the race, the clutch of candidates trailing behind seemed intent on echoing some of his tough-guy posturing. Ohio Gov. John Kasich asserted, “Frankly, it’s time that we punched the Russians in the nose.”
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie went further, insisting that as president he would not hesitate to shoot down a Russian plane over Syria lest he be confused with the “feckless weakling” currently residing in the White House.
“I think if you’re in favor of World War III, you have your candidate,” Paul wryly retorted.
For GOP primary voters, the debate succeeded in clarifying a couple of important points about their candidates even though, in the end, the more than two hours of cantankerous disagreement, rude interruptions and a sketching of foreign policy views probably did not change the contours of the contest.
Viewers who came into the debate favoring Cruz and Rubio probably left it still interested, as each scored points. Both Bush, the former Florida governor, and Christie had relatively good nights, but they have fallen so far behind the leaders everywhere but in New Hampshire that it would have taken a stunning victory for either to vault into the top tier. Former neurosurgeon Ben Carson’s slide from the top ranks seemed likely to continue unabated.
But the debate made very visible the Republican schism over foreign policy, which was the night’s dominant topic, and also drew a sharp contrast on immigration, a central issue throughout the campaign.
Paul and Cruz argued for a less aggressive American footprint overseas, with Cruz even using the slogan “America first,” made famous by the isolationist opponents of Franklin D. Roosevelt in the years before World War II.
Rubio, Bush and Christie, by contrast, advocated greater involvement, echoing the policies of the George W. Bush administration.
That disagreement flavored one of the most heated disputes between Cruz and Rubio.
The two men also fought over their differing votes on a measure to alter the way the government conducts surveillance of telephone calls — “Marco knows what he’s saying isn’t true,” Cruz said. Their dispute grew more personal when the subject turned to immigration.
Rubio has come under criticism from many Republicans for joining with Democrats in 2013 to craft an immigration reform plan that would have allowed some in the country illegally to gain legal status. That has been a big subtext to Cruz and Rubio’s recent fighting.
That sentiment has not boosted Carly Fiorina, whose moment in the GOP limelight came and went quickly in September. But the fed-up factor has gone a long way toward elevating Trump and diminishing the potency of Bush, his prime antagonist on Tuesday night.
Their conflict has seemed inevitable; Trump, the brash nonpolitician, is the antithesis of Bush, the son and brother of presidents, immersed in politics his entire life. But in prior debates, Bush had pulled back from the sort of full-throated assault he leveled at Trump time and again on Tuesday.
Bush was asked if he stood by his assertion last week that Trump’s plan to ban most Muslims from entering the country meant Trump was “unhinged.”
“Donald, you know, is great at — at the one-liners, but he’s a chaos candidate. And he’d be a chaos president,” Bush said.
“He said that very simply because he has failed in this campaign,” Trump replied. “It’s been a total disaster. Nobody cares.”
Unless Bush defies the trend of this campaign, the numbers are likely to remain somewhere near there. The Tuesday debate was the last scheduled joint event of 2015 for the Republican presidential candidates.
The campaign season opens early in the new year with a series of debates and, finally, the start of voting in February. And that will be the first definitive judgment on whether Trump’s confident, detail-dismissing candidacy has the legs for the long haul.