Like so many times before, this could have been the end of Donald Trump's fantastical, bizarre campaign for president.
Within the opening minutes of Thursday's first Republican presidential primary debate, Fox News debate moderator Megyn Kelly had a whale of a question for the party's current frontrunner. She went right for the jugular by listing some of Trump's most misogynistic comments and tweets; he's called women "fat," "pigs" and once said a contestant on his TV show, "The Apprentice," would look better on her knees.
Trump, for a moment, appeared as though he might get drawn into a situation he would rather avoid. "Only Rosie O'Donnell!" he quipped, referring to a woman with whom he has tangled.
Kelly quickly noted that Trump's objectionable comments about women go much further than just O'Donnell, and Trump granted her that.
.@ariannahuff is unattractive both inside and out. I fully understand why her former husband left her for a man- he made a good decision.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 28, 2012
Then Trump got back on track.
"The big problem this country has is being politically correct," he said. "I’ve been challenged by so many people, and I don’t frankly have time for total political correctness. And to be honest with you, this country doesn't have time either. This country is in big trouble. We don’t win anymore."
For a man who has defied political gravity in part because he'll say anything to give a middle finger to the establishment, it was the exact right thing to say, politically speaking. Trump took a minefield of a question and turned it into an attack on political correctness that drew applause from the audience. It was disarming. And it played into his brand. Yes, Trump might have called women things he would rather not have and probably shouldn't have; but he hasn't got time to apologize for it right now. And he's not playing your game, media.
It was so Trump. It was also an expert dodge -- the king of thing a debate coach would stand and applaud.
Later, after Trump was pressed by Fox's Chris Wallace to explain his comments about Mexico sending criminals across the border to the United States, Trump again deflected with aplomb. He didn't back down, he just talked around it.
"This was not a subject that was on anybody's mind until I brought it up at my announcement," he said. "And I said, Mexico is sending. Except the reporters, because they're a very dishonest lot, generally speaking, in the world of politics, they didn't cover my statement the way I said it."
Later, Trump turned boos into respectable applause when Kelly asked about Trump's formerly left-leaning views on things like universal health care and bring friends with the Clintons. She asked him when he actually became a Republican.
Trump took the Ronald Reagan tack -- always a good idea at Republican primary debate. "I've evolved," he said, specifically referencing his anti-abortion rights stance.
In a classic example of show-not-tell, Trump shared a personal story of some very good friends who were going to have an abortion but decided not to. "That child today is a superstar," he said. And right then and there, Trump realized his pro-abortion rights views were wrong. Personal story plus no equivocation about why he changed his position. Textbook presidential debating.
This debate was surreal in more ways than we can count right now: Donald Trump was center stage of the first 2016 Republican presidential primary debate and he dealt well with some pretty tough questions without getting in trouble.
Maybe he's a better politician than we all give him credit for.