Size matters. The GOP debate in Detroit Thursday night had been underway for just seven minutes when this point was made crystal clear.
As the number of candidates still in the race has shrunk, tonight carried the promise of learning more about the remaining four. Instead, the personal insults began flying right away, most notably between Marco Rubio and Donald Trump.
Trump had the moment of the night when he referenced Rubio’s earlier comments mocking the size of Trumps hands. “Look at those hands, are they small hands?” Trump asked the audience. “And (Rubio) referred to my hands — ‘If they’re small, something else must be small’ — I guarantee you, there’s not a problem. I guarantee.”
For the rest of the evening the GOP front runner referred to Rubio as “little Marco” and “this little guy,” with Rubio sarcastically calling him “Big Donald.”
It was that kind of night, sort of like a political version of “Jersey Shore” or “Jerry Springer.” The shocking thing is that this is the new normal for the GOP in 2016 — their last debate was a circus, too.
Trump held his own
Although he was under fire from his fellow candidates and the moderators, Trump managed to hold his own, at least in the style we are now used to seeing from him. He touted the polls that show his popularity, he rambled incoherently about foreign policy and blustered his way through questions about that lawsuit against his former “university.”
Still, the unpredictable candidate did manage two surprises: First, when pressed about an off-the-record New York Times meeting in which he allegedly said that he was “flexible” on illegal immigration, Trump offered a defense of the ethical principles governing off-the-record conversations. He declared that he has “too much respect for the process” to allow the Times to release a recording of their talk.
Who knew that Trump was such a defender of journalistic ethics, especially since he has called the media “scum”?
Second, when moderator Megyn Kelly presented him with video evidence of his flip-flops on Afghanistan, Syrian refugees and responsibility for 9/11, Trump handled it well. “I’ve never met a successful person who wasn’t flexible,” he said.
This statement qualifies as astonishing coming from a politician. Whatever you think of his often-abhorrent ideas and policies, Trump’s answer shows that he is getting better at these debates — or at least confident enough that he can admit that, like everyone else, he changes his mind.
Rubio should drop the Rickles act
Marco Rubio made the most of his time on stage Thursday night, to the extent that someone with no apparent path to the nomination can. He jabbed at Trump as often as possible, with a voice that sounded raspy. Unfortunately, Rubio at times came across as petulant and desperate, like a Chihuahua nipping at a German shepherd.
He diminished himself with his barrage of interruptions and insults aimed primarily at Trump. Note to Rubio: The Don Rickles act is not presidential.
It was jarring, when Rubio was asked about the Flint water crisis, to hear him “give credit to” Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder for his role in a situation that Snyder’s administration created. Consider that Snyder may be facing a recall effort and that there has been severe criticism of how he initially handled the problem.
Then again, Rubio told CNN in January that Flint was “not an issue that we are focused on.”
Cruz comfortable … but unlikeable
Ted Cruz showed again that he is comfortable on a debate stage. What he did not show was any willingness to answer questions directly. When asked about his flip-flopping on H1B visas, he pivoted to reminding the audience of Trump’s use of foreign workers in Florida.
He spoke to Trump — “Count to 10! Breathe!” — in an almost unbearably condescending manner. Cruz’s biggest problem is that he may be the smartest guy on stage, but he is also the most patently dislikable.
Kasich last adult standing
Poor John Kasich was consigned to the Ben Carson role, begging for time and pleading with the other candidates to “Stop fighting!” What a shame, since he conducted himself as a gentleman throughout. While he pointed out his experience as governor, his foreign policy credentials, and that he knew Ronald Reagan, it all seems unlikely to matter at this point. How sad that the GOP presidential race is not rewarding the one adult left in the game.
Trump again dominated this, the 11th debate so far. It was telling that so many questions and answers referred back to him, including the last one about whether the candidates would support him if he won the nomination (all agreed that they would).
And the winner tonight? That would probably be Hillary Clinton.