His contradictory statements on different issues were replayed Thursday night when 2 of his 3 remaining opponents tag teamed the GOP front-runner — and he clearly did not have a good night at the Fox Theatre in Detroit.
But while a group of neutral observers I talked to shortly after the two-hour forum ended agreed Trump sustained damage, there was disagreement as to whether the momentum he acquired after Super Tuesday was in any way reversed.
“The debate this evening was one of the ugliest I've ever seen,” G. Terry Madonna, Franklin and Marshall College professor and considered the premier pollster in Pennsylvania, way, “There was a full court press against Donald Trump by Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz. The assault on Trump was unrelenting.”
Madonna also concluded that this assault took its toll on Trump who, in the veteran pollster’s words, “was the most defensive he has been in any of the previous ten debates. He looked confused and even baffled at times. This was not his best night.
“What’s fascinating is that Cruz, the most conservative candidate left, and Rubio, the establishment candidate, can agree on one thing — to go after Trump.”
But Madonna asked the inevitable post-debate question: “Will it matter to his loyal supporters? This could be the last chance of the anti-Trump forces to stop his momentum before the rest of the primaries and caucuses in March.”
He added that Kasich turned in a “solid performance” but “it’s not going to cause any rise in the polls for him.”
Madonna’s bitter assessment of the Detroit debate was strongly echoed by veteran North Carolina political consultant Marc Rotterman. In his words, “[moderator] Megyn Kelly once again instigated a food fight and then the Fox News moderators quickly lost control.
“The American people learned very little tonight in the first half of the debate. It was a total shame.”
Rotterman, who is neutral in the GOP presidential contest, agreed that “Kelly goaded Rubio in to attacking Trump and, in many instances, Trump took the bait. This was not wise on Mr. Trump’s part. He should have followed the great University of North Carolina [basketball] coach Dean Smith’s strategy of going to four corners and running out the clock.”
As to whether Trump’s debate performance would cause him any lasting damage, Rotterman was much more skeptical than Madonna. After March 15, he told me, “Trump, Cruz, and Kasich will be left standing. And Trump will be the clear front-runner.”
Rotterman also agreed that “the most substantive candidate on stage in Detroit was Gov. Kasich. He was the big winner. He didn't let [moderator Chris] Wallace or Kelly lead him into personal attacks. His answers were crisp and concise. Unfortunately, however, Kasich did not get his fair share of questions.”
Historian David Pietrusza, author of four much-praised books on presidential election years, said flatly:” This may be the debate that finally slowed down — and perhaps even reversed — Donald Trump's momentum. Trump clearly suffered through his shakiest debate.
"Ted Cruz's hammered him relentlessly on his former policy positions such as gun control, his financial support of liberal Democrats, his off-the-record interview with the New York Times, and his November 2016 electability.
“Marco Rubio — and particularly Megyn Kelly — took Trump to task for the growing controversy surrounding Trump University. Trump still blustered, insulted, vulgarly boasted, grimaced, and interrupted.
"But for much of the night he found himself shiftily floundering on defense, often digging himself a deeper hole on whether conservatives could trust him. He displayed an ignorance of detail, and even issued a mind-boggling denial of his past praise of Vladimir Putin.”
Pietrusza also told me “John Kasich provided a generally solid performance. But voters want a president who leads. Kasich once again failed to lead — or even follow — in the immediate crisis facing the Republican Party: how to stop Donald Trump.”
Noting that there was no sniping between Rubio and Cruz, the historian concluded “a truce clearly exists. It may foreshadow a far more realistic ‘Stop Trump’ strategy than any trotting out of Mitt Romney to denounce Trump or any pipe-dream of a Paul Ryan presidential bid.”
“It was raucous, rough, and at times embarrassing,” veteran GOP consultant Ford O’Connell told me after the debate, “Frankly, I don’t think I have ever seen anything like it. John Kasich was the adult in the room tonight. He was optimistic and solid on policy minutia.
"Unfortunately for Kasich, that is just not what a majority of Republican voters are hankering for this cycle.”
Regarding Trump’s performance, O’Connell (who has no horse in the presidential contest) felt that the billionaire “spent an awful lot of time on his heels and explaining his ‘flexibility’ due to the repeated body blows that Cruz and Rubio were delivering with rapid fire. And in politics when you spend an inordinate amount of time explaining, you are losing.”
As to whether his latest debate performance will ultimately hurt Trump and change the trajectory of the race, O’Connell replied: “We won’t know until the votes are cast in Florida and Ohio. But it is doubtful because as long as the field remains divided, Trump is still likely to skate to the nomination with a plurality of votes because his core 35 per cent support is simply rock solid.”
John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax.
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