Since unexpectedly jumping into the Republican race this past summer, Donald Trump has shaped the political conversation, dominated the national polls, and bent long-held electoral laws to his will. But on Thursday night in South Carolina, the blustery billionaire did something he had still yet to do during the past seven months: He lived up to his campaign trail performance on the debate stage.
During the first five GOP get-togethers, Trump repeatedly found himself absorbing attacks from everyone from Fox News’ Megyn Kelly to Carly Fiorina. And when Trump wasn’t fending off parries from his rivals or the moderators at past debates, he often went MIA for long stretches—particularly when the conversation veered into policy specifics—ceding the prime-time spotlight to his attention-starved rivals. When he did turn up, it was generally to take cheap shots at the already beaten down Jeb Bush. In North Charleston, though, Trump was the type of “high energy” candidate that he sees when he looks in his high-end, ornamental mirror.
The night finally produced the expected clash between Trump and fellow firebrand Ted Cruz—the two polling leaders in the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses and national surveys—and, while it was close, Trump seemed to get the better of their exchanges. Pressed by the Fox Business moderators, Cruz offered a lengthy explanation for why Trump’s birther-themed claims that Cruz might not be eligible to be president because he was born in Canada were bunk. “Now since September, the Constitution hasn't changed, but the poll numbers have,” Cruz said, reminding viewers that Trump had previously dismissed the question out of hand earlier in the campaign. It was a strong answer, but it set Trump up to play the role of counter-puncher.
“Here's the problem,” Trump responded. “We're running, we're running. He does great. I win. I choose him as my vice-presidential candidate and the Democrats sue, because we can't take him along for the ride. I don't like that. OK?” Cruz’s answer won the room, but Trump probably won in living rooms in Iowa and New Hampshire. Cruz, after all, was forced to watch as precious prime-time minutes of debate time introduced untold number of voters to the idea that politicos and pundits (and a few law professors) are debating his basic eligibility.
Cruz had a slew of great moments, too. He ignored the first question about jobs and the economy to throw some red meat to the crowd by hitting Obama over the images of the U.S. sailors that were captured (and released) by Iran. He also turned a recent New York Times report about his unreported Goldman Sachs loan into a badge of honor. “Thank you for passing on that hit piece on the front page of the New York Times,” he said to cheers.
But Cruz simply lived up to expectations; Trump exceeded them. When moderators brought up South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley’s implicit (and later confirmed) criticism of his rhetoric during her State of the Union rebuttal, he offered one of those rare sound bites that sums up his entire campaign: “I will gladly accept the mantel of anger.” Later, he did what he needed to do on guns—ignoring his past positions in favor of some gun control to present himself as a Second Amendment absolutist. He also stood firm when asked if he had rethought his (disgusting and short-sighted) plan to indefinitely ban Muslims from entering the country. “No,” he said flat out to applause and laughter, before elaborating with another key campaign theme: “We need to stop with this political correctness.”
If Round 1 of his fight with Cruz was decided on points, Round 2 was closer to a knockout. In the second hour of the debate when Cruz was asked about his criticism that Trump had “New York values,” the Texas senator rehashed the type of criticism of Trump that focus groups have suggested simply don’t work. Trump, meanwhile, responded by name-dropping William F. Buckley, and then followed up with something conservatives love even more the founder of the National Review: remembering American patriotism on 9/11. “When the World Trade Center came down, I saw something that no place on Earth could have handled more beautifully, more humanely than New York,” he said. The answer was so great that Cruz was forced to grin and sheepishly applaud along with the crowd. Trump then went for the big finish: “We rebuilt downtown Manhattan, and everybody in the world watched, and everybody in the world loved New York and loved New Yorkers, and I have to tell you, that was a very insulting statement that Ted made.”
Trump and Cruz weren’t the only strong ones onstage. Marco Rubio had his moments, as he always does, and Chris Christie was decent as well. (Heck, even Jeb showed signs of life.) But that will only give the remaining establishment candidates more hope, which could delay the eventual consolidation of their supporters behind a single candidate. The longer they wait, the better Trump’s chances are to post a campaign-altering win in New Hampshire, where he already leads, by the way. All in all, it was a very good evening for Trump. This late in the game, a single debate is unlikely to drastically change the existing dynamics. That, of course, will be just fine with Trump.