Without Donald Trump, the most recent Republican debate looked more like the ones before DT came to the dance. Jeb Bush had better rhythm. He would be dancing center stage if The Donald had not joined the party. Bush handled the criticism of his brother’s record and his establishment ties better than he has in the past. Rand Paul (remember him?), had a few new moves. His expression of love for his father was the right answer to a question about whether he would inherit his father’s “liberty” votes.
Without the tension Trump brings to the floor–without the contrast–some candidates suffered. John Kasich paid attention to how he positions himself to answer one question about whether he was a political insider or not. Kasich tried to say he was neither an insider nor outsider. Contortionism is not one of his gifts. Marco Rubio showed the greatest versatility. He had some praise for Paul, fought with Cruz, and did some tough talking. But, Rubio seemed too rehearsed. Too young. Too much like a politician for this election cycle.
A few candidates tried the same moves we’ve seen repeatedly. We know you are a surgeon, Dr. Carson. Life and death. Can organize a team. Likeable, but not powerful enough to do the heavy lifting. He did not get many turns on the floor. And, yes, Chris Christie, you are a governor forced to make decisions. You can’t simply talk about problems. Maybe that’s why you’re not talking about the bridges in your state.
Then there’s Ted Cruz. He became the star attraction. He tried to assume Donald’s mantle. If this were an actual dance, he would have been the dancer criticizing the music the musicians were playing. Senator Cruz claimed he was asked unfair questions, and he jokingly threatened to walk off. The judges are still trying to decide if Donald Trump’s criticism of Fox was a legitimate move, but there’s no question that it’s bad manners to question the questioners when you accept the invitation to the second round. There were times when I could see the college debater in Cruz–I served as a college debate judge long ago. Ted was well-prepared. He addressed the questions asked. Senator Cruz drew upon an impressive storehouse of facts and statistics to support his claims. But, he got tripped up. The accusation by Rubio and others, that he would say anything for votes, made his spins seem awkward. If this accusation sticks, it will cause him to slip in the polls.
Even though he was not there, the focus remained on Donald Trump. Was refusing to debate a good strategy? A few debaters stepped lightly on his toes, but I had expected all of the candidates to pile on. They didn’t. They seemed relieved he was gone. This allowed them to dance the way they had rehearsed and not worry about the tango with Trump. Trump’s absence didn’t make the heart grow fonder, but out of sight out of mind did not apply either. We’ll know more when the judges, i.e., the voters, choose their dancing partners.