Republican debate differed in style if not in substance

Last night’s 12th Republican debate was decidedly different in tone from the previous ones, even if the actual content consisted of the same right-wing extremist positions we have heard before. There were no insults and name calling, no interrupting and talking over each other, and no repeated requests to the moderators to be called upon to rebut someone else. The moderators tried a couple of times early on on to get the others to respond to Donald Trump’s statements but they did not take the bait.

But most significantly, none of Donald Trump’s rivals brought up any of even the legitimate criticisms of Trump that they had done in the previous debates, such as his failed business ventures and his shady practices. The entire file of opposition research that had been dumped on the floor last time and used repeatedly in their campaign speeches over the past two weeks disappeared from view.

They refrained from attacking his business prowess and ethics and personality, things that had seemed to be his weakest points. Even when they raised an issue like Trump’s use of foreign workers in his businesses, the effort seemed half-hearted. This enabled Trump to act ‘presidential’ which by his low standards simply means not bragging nearly as much nor insulting his rivals. Even the crowd was more subdued than the raucous one we saw last time. One got the sense that everyone was at pretty low energy, as Trump would say.

Why the change? Maybe there had been an effort by the party establishment and their big money backers to tell the candidates that their past rowdy behavior was making the party the laughing stock of the world, let alone the nation, and that if they did not knock it off, they risked destroying the party. Maybe it was tiredness after so many debates. Maybe it was the realization that Trump was likely inevitable for the nomination and we were witnessing the preliminary clearing of the throats of his rivals before publicly acknowledging it. Maybe the fact that they had thrown everything they had at him in the last two debates and he had not been seriously hurt and had even begun to rise in the polls again had taken the wind out of their sails. At least as far as the candidates were concerned it looked like they realized that there was little they could do to stop him and their only hope was that Trump’s campaign may collapse of its own accord.

This does not mean that all the outside entities will follow suit. The emergence of SuperPACs means that there is plenty of money out there to run ads by groups who are technically independent of the candidates but in reality act in concert with them to various degrees. Some of the more truly independent ones may still run attack ads but we have seen in this year’s race that they have had little success in influencing Trump’s supporters.

It will be interesting to see the tone of the candidates’ stump speeches in the days running up to next Tuesday’s six primaries where 367 of the roughly 1,400 delegates still up for grabs will be allocated with nearly all of them under winner-take-all rules. Trump needs almost 800 more than he currently has to win the nomination outright. Ben Jacobs looks at all the scenarios that could play out if no candidate has the required majority on the first ballot at the convention.

Note that there are 303 delegates to be awarded in five states on the very last day of the primaries on June 7, a little over a month before the Republican convention starting on July 18. Usually these races generate very little interest since the outcome has been decided long before then. This year could be the exception.

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