CLEVELAND — The first Republican debate of the 2016 campaign appeared to leave the nomination contest just as it was before.
Donald Trump brought to Thursday’s debate the same sharp tongue and controversial style that has propelled him to the top of the polls in the Republican race. He was outspoken, bombastic and unapologetic. He did exactly what he has been doing up to now, and it hasn’t hurt him yet.
From here forward, the others in the race might be forced to recalibrate their assessments of whether Trump is a comet flashing across the political skies or someone who eventually will have to be confronted directly in order to stop him.
The evening showed that the Republicans have a field of candidates potentially capable of stopping him. Trump stood out on Thursday by being Trump, but he did not really diminish the others on stage.
Anyone who thought a calmer, cooler — yes, more presidential — Trump would show up in Cleveland, as he had hinted in the days heading into the debate, was probably as surprised as they were earlier this summer when he left his rivals in the dust in poll after poll. Instead, Trump brought himself, although in doing so he seemed willing to test the potential limits of his appeal.
In front of a partisan Republican audience, whose overriding goal next year is to recapture the White House, Trump refused to pledge to support the eventual nominee of the party (unless, he said, he is the nominee). Nor would he decline to pledge that, if he isn’t the nominee, he will not run an independent campaign for president — something many Republicans believe would guarantee a Democratic victory.
He also challenged his Fox News questioners. At one point he seemed to cross a line when he sarcastically responded to Megyn Kelly after she asked an unfriendly question that quoted some of the abusive language he has used to describe women. He later offered a tutorial to Chris Wallace about business and bankruptcy laws when Wallace asked him about the various times his company has declared bankruptcy.
Trump has defied political gravity throughout his brief candidacy, continuing to rise, for example, after he declared that he did not think Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who was a POW during the Vietnam War, should be seen as a hero, saying he preferred people who didn’t get captured. Many of his opponents criticized him for that, just as they had for his comment that many illegal immigrants were rapists or drug dealers or murderers.
On Thursday night, they disagreed with him, but tentatively. Ohio Gov. John Kasich was asked about Trump’s comment about rapists and started by saying, “Donald Trump is hitting a nerve.”
The wealthy businessman and reality TV star was just one of 10 candidates on the stage. At times, he was a mere bystander to sharp exchanges and scintillating moments involving the others, including a tense and high-octane argument between New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky about the balance between national security and civil liberties.
That exchange was by far the most arresting moment of the night, and it allowed each candidate to position himself exactly as he wanted to be positioned. But even in less contentious moments, the debate revealed differences among the candidates that, as the primary season nears, will generate more heat, whether in television ads or on debate stages.
Everyone on the stage came with something to prove, and many found moments to put their core message and rationale before the audience.
Former Florida governor Jeb Bush defended his positions on immigration, which are at odds with the party base. Kasich won applause from the hometown audience with an impassioned statement about loving someone who is gay even while opposing same-sex marriage.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker made repeated appeals to the party base. Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.) charted his anti-Washington, anti-establishment course with vigor. Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) offered himself as the candidate for the future.
If there was a back-of-the-pack candidate who seized the moment Thursday, it was Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard chief executive who was among the seven candidates excluded from the main stage because of low poll numbers. They were relegated to an hour-long session in the late afternoon.
As the only woman on either stage Thursday, Fiorina naturally stood out, but it was the way she handled herself that clearly distinguished her from the others. In a more perfect world, Fiorina would have earned a place in Thursday’s prime-time debate by virtue of her performance in the warm-up session.
The days before Thursday’s debate had the feel of events that come far later in the campaign cycle, with a huge buildup in the media for the past two weeks and a press corps to match in Cleveland to witness it.
The debate came at a moment of considerable uncertainty about the Republican campaign. Trump’s surge upended everyone’s expectations. His rivals have been reluctant to change their own strategies in response, but he has forced them to ask whether their calculations of what would happen to him might need to be changed.
Trump’s presence obviously contributed most to all the hoopla, but it was more than just the Trump phenomenon that generated excitement. For many Republicans, it was a moment they have been anticipating for some time: an opportunity to take a measure of their leading candidates in a compare-and-contrast setting.
In the hours before the debate, the pregame expectations swung back and forth, with pundits at one moment predicting fireworks from the stage and possibly a decisive moment — bad or good — for one of the candidates, and at the next moment expressing apprehension that the whole thing would prove to be utterly forgettable, a failure not just as a political event but as reality TV.
The opening debate of any campaign is nothing more than that, a beginning — two hours of collective activity after months of testing messages before audiences a tiny fraction of the one that tuned in on Thursday night. Historically, these early debates have proven to be more helpful for candidates to introduce themselves than for voters to draw conclusions.
But every debate counts in some way, even if it is because it does not fundamentally change the dynamic of the race. That appeared to be the case on Thursday. Trump committed no major mistakes. If he was overbearing at times, well, that has been part of his appeal. If he was impolitic at other times — bragging about buying access to politicians or taking personal advantage of the bankruptcy laws — he has done that before
How long the Trump moment lasts is anybody’s guess. Those who hoped he would disappear quickly have been disappointed. Those who think he will yet fade away or blow himself up might still be proved correct. Those who fear for the party the longer he is a candidate have more to worry about.
There are any number of candidates who wait and hope to rise if he falls. But for now, Trump remains a force to be reckoned with.