Wobbling Frontrunner

Trump’s Debate Shtick Turns Stale, Withers Under Fiorina Assault

Things were fine as long as he could keep up the insult-comic-as-truth-teller act. But as soon as things got serious—and Fiorina fought back—Trump lost the room.

FREDERIC J BROWN/AFP via Getty

It’s too early to say whether Donald Trump’s followers will care or not, but the golden one seemed to lose his shine on Wednesday night.

Before he secured his position as frontrunner, numerous pundits predicted that this or that boorish statement about John McCain or Megyn Kelly would diminish his numbers.

But with each blow he marched on. His lead in the polls only increased.

But whether it was the rattled moment after Jeb Bush dinged him for trying to buy his way into the Florida casino business or when he sputtered through what was (without him) a thoughtful foreign policy discussion, the emperor of the Republican field certainly looked like he forgot his clothes on Wednesday. And that was before his crazy answer on vaccines and autism, or his utter vanquishing at the hands of Carly Fiorina, responding to his comment about her face.

The other candidates, better polished and better prepared than last time, came across as people who know stuff. Their discussions about government shutdowns, foreign policy, and drug policy had, by the standards of these things, some degree of depth.

And Trump was noticeably muted through all that.

It started well enough. Trump was funny. He’s got his insult-comic-as-truth-teller act down at this point. But as soon as things got serious, he got quiet.

And then, one after another, the other candidates started to chip away at him.

Bush, asked whether he was a “puppet” because of his $100 million war chest—as Trump has claimed—rejected the putdown and then attacked Trump as a would-be puppet master.

“The one guy that had some special interests that I know of that tried to get me to change my views on something—that was generous and gave me money—was Donald Trump,” Bush said. “He wanted casino gambling in Florida.”

Trump retorted that, in fact, he did not push for casinos in Florida because if he had pushed for casinos, then there would have been casinos. He is Donald Trump, after all, and all he does is win win win no matter what.

And then Carly Fiorina shivved him.

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Asked what she thought of the comment and of Trump’s explanation that he was referring to her “persona” when he told a Rolling Stone reporter to “look at that face. Would anyone vote for that? Can you imagine that, the face of our next president?" Fiorina paused and then went in for the kill.

“I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said,” she said.

Trump clumsily responded, “I think she’s got a beautiful face, and I think she’s a beautiful woman.”

Boo.

Trump never really recovered. He’d lost the room, and he looked like he knew it.

Speaking of Fiorina, the former Hewlett Packard CEO—so far the lone success story from the undercard debate—built on her success there and showed that her fight to get onto the main stage in the first place was worth it. She not only slayed Trump, she showed she could be the outsider to beat.

Her answer about defunding Planned Parenthood got some of the loudest applause of the night—second only, perhaps, to her response to Jake Tapper’s question about Trump’s remarks on her appearance.

Trump’s slide went beyond his putdowns. His inability to engage in any substantive policy discussion was glaring. That, and a shtick that’s grown stale, and can’t adapt to a setting where people are actually talking about, you know, policy. Republican primary voters might not care much for policy—Trump’s rise is probably all the proof you need of that—but they know when someone is putting on a lousy show.

He made the situation worse with the unhinged anti-vaccination comments, hypothesizing that all these vaccines bunched together are bad for kids and probably caused autism.

(Lucky for him, the two medical doctors on stage, Rand Paul and Ben Carson, passed on the chance to hit him hard for spreading ideas that have been roundly rejected by the medical community.)

Maybe the crowd was part of the problem for Trump. These were not the same Republican voters who whooped and hollered and delighted in his every insult at the last debate. Instead, it was a subdued audience made up primarily of Republican insiders—not exactly his demo.

The length of the debate, which Trump complained about on Twitter a few hours before he arrived at the Reagan Library, could also have been the problem.

He was more low-energy than he appeared when he was giving those speeches in front of adoring crowds in Alabama and Texas.

Or maybe it was just his basic shallowness that did him in. And while Jeb! is still Jeb, he was eventually able to stand up to Trump, and his performance steadily improved throughout the night.

Bush is unlikely to inspire people like, say, a Ronald Reagan or a Barack Obama could. But he came across as sober, an adult. And he even he got some Trump jabs in. Who knows? Maybe after a few more months of this, Republican primary voters will be looking to give the Bush brand of boring a shot. He hates talking about his family, but he’s at his best when he defends them. His biggest line? Telling Trump that Bush 43, whatever his faults, “kept us safe” after the 9/11 attacks.

Marco Rubio, the would-be Republican savior with the anemic poll numbers, had a great night in an environment that prized foreign policy chops. His answers were solid, delivered articulately, and seemed to have originated in a brain that knew what it was talking about. He even got a few laugh lines in there, after opening with a joke about drinking water during his 2013 State of the Union response (remember?!) that landed flat.

Rand Paul, the man with hair that looks like it would wash away in a rainstorm, got called out early by Trump but seemed at least to hit the libertarian high notes that will please his dad’s base. John Kasich continued his quixotic campaign to sound like the Republican most likely to endorse a Democratic presidential nominee in a few years.

Mike Huckabee sounded like the Mike Huckabee we all know and Republican voters just aren’t sold on.

The rapidly diminishing Scott Walker talked briskly through a flop sweat. And Ben Carson was the nice, likable doctor with a severe energy deficit.

Chris Christie was less angry than the Christie we typically think of. Introducing himself, he asked CNN to switch the camera to the crowd, and CNN obliged. He joked with Carson. He made an argument for why he is an “outsider”—the most sought-after label in the Republican Party right now—that sounded plausible enough.

By the midpoint of the debate that impish quality that endeared Trump to people who otherwise despise him had gone away. The yuks were over. He couldn’t even manage one of his trademark funny looks. He stood there at the center of the stage, hunched over, resting his weight on his podium, scowling at the crowd and whoever was speaking. He tried to pick fights, but the punches didn’t land.

Trump was, for the first time since he began his campaign last June, weak.

And his rivals all took their turns pouncing on him whenever he popped his head up. As the night wound down, he was an increasingly minor presence on the stage.

After the grueling three-hour ordeal was over and the dust had begun to settle, Trump looked a lot less formidable than he had been. He even seemed—dare we say it—a bit humbled by the end of it.

Trump made only a brief appearance in the spin room after the debate, just long enough for over-caffeinated reporters trample each other to yell questions about Fiorina’s face. He mumbled some answers and then was quickly gone and the crowd disappeared, leaving spilled drinks and food mashed into the carpet.

It was, by any objective measure, a rough night for him. But who knows? At this point, it seems like objective measures don’t really matter when it comes to Trump. His campaign has torn up the rule book and has so far been a massive success.

Or maybe now that he’s faced with a fellow outsider who doesn’t pull her punches, Trump will wobble. Maybe this really is the start of a decline that will be as quick and remarkable as his rise to the top of the polls.

Or maybe he surges to 50 percent after this. Any other candidate would be damaged by a performance like that. Trump isn’t any other candidate, but on Wednesday night, he definitely resembled one of his favorite words: a loser.