It's a tricky balance for a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination. Donald Trump's default mode is burn-it-down aggression, which, absent his position in the polls, could be easily ignored or condemned. With his position in the polls, though, that's harder. After all, if Trump (ever) crosses one line too many, one-fifth of the Republican electorate will be looking for someone else to support -- ideally someone who didn't think they were idiots for backing Trump.
That calculation leads to a wide range of candidate responses to Trump's various transgressions. Which, to recap, were calling Mexican immigrants criminals and rapists, disparaging the military record of Sen. John McCain, and, most recently, his comments about Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly.
We collected responses to Trump's actions and ranked key Republican candidates based on their responses to him. This is subjective; your rankings may vary.
Ted Cruz. Cruz's default explanation for his refusal to criticize Trump is that he's "not interested in Republican on Republican violence." After Trump's comments about immigration, Cruz said he "salutes" him. And that didn't change much after the comments about Kelly. "I think every candidate should treat everyone else with civility and respect," Cruz said. "That is a standard that I try to follow. That is a standard I hope that all of us try to aspire to."
Scott Walker. Walker has similarly been reticent to bash Trump. Asked to comment on the immigration issue, Walker replied that "Trump can speak for himself. I'm going to answer questions about my positions, not Donald Trump's or Jeb Bush's or Marco Rubio's or anyone elses out there." When an email from a supporter calling Trump a "Dumbdumb" emerged, Trump seized on it as an excuse to bash Walker. But the strongest response Walker has offered is this:
Ben Carson. After Trump's immigration comments, Carson declined to weigh in heavily. "It's the P.C. police out in force," he said. "They want to make very clear that this is a topic you’re not supposed to bring up."
Trump's Megyn Kelly comments elicited a different response. "I think that may be a difference between political correctness and, you know, courteous speech," Carson said. "In no way do I advocate, you know, saying mean things about people. That has nothing to do with political correctness."
Chris Christie. During the immigration uproar, Christie called the comments "inappropriate." In the wake of the debate, his comments were less strident. "I like him," Christie said over the weekend, referring to Trump. "I think he's a good guy. I think he's got a lot of skills but I just don't think for this. I think he's not right for this." That mirrored other recent comments. "Anybody can do well for a month in this business, especially if you have talent and personality. And Donald has both those things, so let's see how it goes over the course of time."
Mike Huckabee. Huckabee's responses have generally had the air of the disappointed father. "I said very clearly John McCain is a hero," he said during that kerfuffle. "Donald Trump will need to determine whether that's a statement he needs to walk back."
As for Kelly? "Megyn Kelly was a colleague of mine for six and a half years when I was at Fox," he said. "Intellectually unsurpassed as a broadcast journalist, she has great integrity, and so you know I'm going to stand for Megyn Kelly." He added that he hopes Trump apologizes.
John Kasich. Kasich was asked on CBS if Trump's past comments about women were appropriate, and the governor replied, "No, no, no, no, no. Of course it's not. Everybody knows that." But his criticism of Trump included some praise -- "I'm just acknowledging the fact that the guy has hit a nerve. I didn't tell you I approve of everything he's doing." -- mirroring his decision not to criticize Trump during the debate itself. He also pledged that the adviser who famously tweeted about preparing to debate Trump being like prepping for a NASCAR race with a drunk driver would not be "sending any more tweets like that."
Rick Santorum. During the immigration debate, Santorum offered a tepid critique. "I don't agree with his comments, obviously," he said -- but "[t]he vast majority of people coming legally into this country from Mexico and other places are people who want to do the right thing. People who are coming illegally obviously are coming with a bad intent, let's just be honest." As for Kelly, Santorum said that the candidates "should and must address serious issues facing our nation, but name-calling and crass personal attacks is beneath the office we are running for."
Bobby Jindal. Jindal's response on Trump's immigration disparagement toed a tricky line. "I see people as individuals, not members of ethnic or economic groups," he said, "but what I believe is that we do need to secure the border and not as part of a comprehensive bill, but we need to secure the border." But he was firmer in response to the Kelly comments. "Coarse language and degrading comments are for cowards," he said in a statement. "Where I come from we don’t treat people like that." He was stronger on McCain, too.
After Donald Trump spends six years in a POW camp, he can weigh in on John McCain's service— Gov. Bobby Jindal (@BobbyJindal) July 18, 2015
Marco Rubio. Rubio has given up on responding to each new Trump agitation, he said over the weekend. "If I comment on everything he says, I mean, my whole campaign will be consumed by it," he said on "Meet the Press," quite understandably. In the past, he's been sharper. ""It’s important we have -- to conduct the presidency, it has to be done in a dignified way, with a level of class," he said on "Fox and Friends" even before the Kelly affair. "I don’t think the way he’s behaved over the last few weeks is either dignified or worthy of office he seeks."
Jeb Bush. Bush was an early critic of Trump's immigration comments, calling them "extraordinarily ugly" and saying that he found them offensive. On Kelly, he offered mostly disbelief. "Come on — give me a break," he said. "I mean, do we want to win? Do we want to insult 53% of all voters [referring to women]? What Donald Trump said is wrong."
Carly Fiorina. But Bush didn't go to war with Trump, as others have. Carly Fiorina hit Trump hard during the warm-up debate on Thursday, referring pointedly to Trump's call with Bill Clinton. After the Megyn Kelly comments, Fiorina made her position clear.
Mr. Trump: There. Is. No. Excuse.— Carly Fiorina (@CarlyFiorina) August 8, 2015
Lindsey Graham. Graham called Trump a "jackass" after the McCain comments, spurring the now-famous announcement of his cell phone number. After the Megyn Kelly comments, Graham offered a simple statement: "These statements are not worthy of the office he is seeking nor consistent with the leadership we should expect from a commander-in-chief in these dangerous times."
Rick Perry. Perry has been going after Trump vigorously for months. "Let no one be mistaken — Donald Trump’s candidacy is a cancer on conservatism, and it must be clearly diagnosed, excised and discarded," he said in a speech. And he lumped together all of Trump's comments in a response over the weekend. "Attacking veterans, Hispanics and women demonstrates a serious lack of character and basic decency," he said.
Rand Paul. Paul, who was happy to mix it up during the first debate, blasted Trump even before the main event began. When Trump raised his hand to say he wouldn't necessarily back the Republican nominee, Paul, too, referred to Trump's past with the Clintons. "He's already hedging his bet on the Clintons, OK?," he said. "So if he doesn’t run as a Republican, maybe he supports Clinton, or maybe he runs as an independent but I’d say that he’s already hedging his bets because he's used to buying politicians."
That was followed by his calling Trump a "fake conservative." "I have no idea what his real philosophy is other than that he is for promoting himself," Paul said. And: "I don't think we should reward vulgarity and I don’t think vulgarity equates to insight."
Now, an important note on these rankings: Expect them to change.
Illustrations by Richard Johnson.