CLEVELAND — Donald Trump may top the polls in the contest for the Republican presidential nomination, but this week’s debate was a reminder that the party has able rivals who eventually could take him down — and who also could mount a stiff challenge to Hillary Rodham Clinton in the general election.
Trump performed in typical style Thursday in the two-hour debate — the same style that has helped him blow past the other candidates. But as the campaigns broke camp here Friday morning, the smiles on the faces of other candidates’ advisers told the fuller story of what happened on the stage at the Quicken Loans Arena.
Everyone came out a winner — or so the rivals’ advisers proclaimed. Some of that bravado was typical post-debate hype, but some of it was grounded in reality. Trump may have been the center of attention, but others performed more effectively overall.
For months, Republican leaders have talked about the breadth, depth and potential strength of their candidates. As a group, the aspiring nominees are certainly more experienced and seemingly more ready for a national campaign than the collection of politicians who sought to deny Mitt Romney the GOP nomination in 2012.
Democrats have enjoyed the summer of Trump and hope it lasts long enough to inflict serious damage on the Republican brand. But they no doubt saw enough Thursday night to begin to worry about what a general election pitting a vulnerable Clinton against one of the non-Trumps could portend.
On Thursday, a national television audience — likely a record primary-debate audience — got its first real look at candidates such as Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky. Even former Florida governor Jeb Bush probably isn’t that well known, despite his familiar name.
In a field of 17 candidates, Trump’s poll numbers are impressive. He’s getting a fifth to a quarter of the GOP vote in national polls. In those polls, his nearest rivals are drawing half or less of his support.
To Trump, that already makes him a winner. But the Republican race will not remain a 17-candidate scrum indefinitely. When the field shrinks, Trump will find himself in a different battle, and it will probably not be as favorable to him as this summer’s contest has been.
Trump complained after the debate that the Fox News moderators — Megyn Kelly, Bret Baier and Chris Wallace — had treated him badly, with unfair questions designed to embarrass him and ultimately bring him down. The judgment from many others was that the three did an exceptional job, with probing questions not only for Trump but also for others on the stage.
Trump set the tone early in a combative exchange with Kelly over some of the derogatory words he has used to describe women. He got a big laugh when, as Kelly quoted his words, he interjected, “Only Rosie O’Donnell.” It seemed like classic Trump — delivering a quick, sharp riposte in the face of a potentially damaging accusation — although he then went too far and attacked Kelly, continuing to do so on Twitter after the debate.
The opening act from Trump set the story line for the debate. But the longer the event went on, the more others on the stage had their own opportunities to seize the limelight. Trump never faded away, but he seemed a less larger-than-life character in the latter stages of the debate than at the beginning.
In the aftermath, many candidates claimed victory. Various among them were seen as winners by one pundit or another. A focus group moderated by Frank Luntz gave low marks to Trump. But Cruz, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson drew positive responses from the group.
Republicans who wish Trump no good luck said afterward they thought that they had witnessed the reality-TV star planting the seeds of an eventual demise. Advisers to Trump rivals all found reasons to think that their candidate had emerged better positioned to be the beneficiary if and when Trump begins to fall back to earth.
One of those potential obstacles in Trump’s path was reinforced in the opening minutes. Baier asked any candidate who was unwilling to pledge support the Republican nominee in 2016 and unwilling to pledge not to run as an independent to raise his hand. Trump hesitated for just an instant and then, alone among the 10 candidates, put up his hand.
For now, that might not hurt him with the bloc of supporters he has already attracted. They appear to prize the blunt talk of a non-politician. Among Republican voters who don’t currently support him and who badly want a winner in 2016, this display of personal ambition over party loyalty could come back to haunt Trump.
Most voters are still shopping the field of candidates. They have the luxury of time and many choices. When they start to get serious, perhaps before the end of this year and certainly as the first caucuses and primaries begin, the field of 17 will begin to winnow.
Who’s to say now which of the nine others on the stage Thursday night — or the seven who participated in the undercard debate four hours earlier — will rise up to become a finalist for the nomination. But someone will, and perhaps more than one.
Democrats would welcome Trump as the Republican nominee, or as an independent candidate. Privately, they are less enthusiastic about a race against some of the others.
One is Rubio, who declared forcefully early in the debate that he would present the starkest future-vs.-past contrast to Clinton. Another is Kasich, this year’s version of the compassionate conservative.
Bush, who was less forceful on the stage than some of the others, lacks the freshness of Kasich or Rubio or Walker. But his more moderate views on immigration, his desire to expand the GOP coalition and his experience give Democrats pause.
Walker makes the case for himself as a fresh face, a Washington outsider and a results-oriented politician. He has been a divisive leader in Wisconsin, but he has the potential to unite the establishment and tea party wings of the Republican Party — if he does not drive himself too far to the right.
It’s likely that all of the candidates walked away from Cleveland thinking they did nothing to hurt their chances of becoming a contender for the nomination and probably did themselves some good. That’s about all any of them could have expected from the first debate.
Trump likely will continue to draw the most attention from the news media. But Thursday’s debate proved to be about more than just the Donald Trump Show. It put new and credible Republican faces in front of a huge audience. That could give Democrats, some already nervous about Clinton, something else to worry about.