Donald Trump’s rivals stepped on the Fox New debate stage on Thursday with a game plan: to convince Republican voters in the upcoming primaries to vote for anyone but the current front-runner. Trump stepped on stage prepared with a dick joke.
“He hit my hands. Nobody has ever hit my hands,” Trump said early, a reference to Sen. Marco Rubio’s suggestion last week that Donald had small hands, and therefore a small penis. “I have never heard of this. Look at those hands. Are they small hands? And he referred to my hands—if they are small, something else must be small—I guarantee you there’s no problem. I guarantee you.”
It was a low point of the debate—and perhaps modern American politics—but the rest of the night was barely an improvement. Chris Wallace and his fellow Fox News moderators spent much of the evening trying to stop Rubio and Sen. Ted Cruz from talking over Trump, and Trump from talking over Rubio and Cruz. All the while, a rowdy Detroit crowd hooted, hollered, and clapped before, after, and during many of the exchanges. No one looked like a winner in that environment. Then again, the past nine months haven’t made any of the men on stage look like winners, exactly. Trump has won 10 of the first 15 states, but as Nate Silver pointed out earlier in the day, only 49 percent of the actual voters who were surveyed in exit polls said they’d be happy to see him as the nominee. Cruz and Rubio fared nearly as badly in those polls—and they don’t have a commanding delegate lead to ease their pain like Trump does.
It’s hard to see how Thursday night will change a status quo that has proved so favorable to Trump. He was battered by attacks throughout the night—from his rivals and from the moderators—and faced questions about Trump University and what he told the New York Times’ editorial board off the record about his willingness to soften his hard-line immigration stance. But similar attacks failed to derail him in the past 10 debates, so it’s unclear why these ones would—especially coming from the same men and moderators who have tried, and failed, to take him down before.
Trump survived the night much how he has before—by playing fast and loose with facts while embracing what would be considered weaknesses in other candidates. When Marco Rubio attacked him for dodging policy questions by lobbing personal attacks, Trump responded with more personal attacks. (At one point, after Trump dismissively called Rubio “little Marco,” Rubio responded by calling him “big Donald,” a nickname that Marco appeared to regret before it even came out of his mouth.) When Cruz suggested that Trump’s history of donating to Democrats and Republicans alike made him part of Washington’s problems, Trump spun that criticism into proof that he knows how to play the game. And when Fox News’ fact checkers put his past words on screen to prove he’d flipped and flopped, Trump responded with his usual combination of rambling and bluster. It was the same thing we’ve seen before, and it’s the same thing we can expect to see again.
Thursday’s debate, meanwhile, was the first since Super Tuesday and the first since the GOP establishment has begun to consolidate behind a contested convention strategy that relies on voters not consolidating behind any candidate. Mitt Romney made it clear earlier in the day that Hail Mary is the only play left in the Republican Party’s playbook. Rubio’s been hyping the brokered convention route for weeks, but Cruz also jumped on board publicly on Thursday. “If you are one of the 65 percent to 70 percent of Republicans who recognize that nominating Donald would be a disaster, then I ask you to come join us,” the Texan said, before combining his four state wins with Rubio’s one. “We welcome you to our team because we've demonstrated not once, not twice, not three times, but five separate times we have beat Donald and if you don't want him to be the nominee, then I ask you to stand with us as a broad coalition of people who believe in the Constitution, believe in freedom, and want to turn this country around.”
(John Kasich, still the forgotten man on stage, was the only one who didn’t fully get the message. While he didn’t attack Rubio or Cruz directly, he repeatedly began responses with some variation of, I’m the only man on stage who ...)
Less than an hour later after Cruz’s appeal, the #NeverTrump strategy began to quickly crumble when moderator Bret Baier used the last question of the night to press each of Trump’s rivals on whether they would honor the GOP loyalty pledge they signed last year and support Trump if he is the nominee. To a man, each one said yes.