Did the Donald get done? That’s the takeaway from yesterday’s three-hour — three-hour — debate between the 11 “leading” Republican candidates for nomination, in the Ronald Reagan Library with an old Air Force One looming behind them. The duration could be taken as a slap at any notion that US political discourse is superficial, but is more likely due to CNN’s desire to sell top-dollar ad space for an event that gained 25+ million viewers (for a network that often tootles along with less than 1 million).

Whether they intended it or not, the duration may have been the beginning of the end for Trump, whose content-free schtick did not do well over the course of an entire evening. Trump’s rallies and his prior TV appearance have been pure political high-fructose corn syrup — tell the audience “we’re going to be so great all, the problems are going to be solved because I’m not stoopid, and all these other people are” — which gives a boost, before the political hangry hits again. In a three-hour debate it was hitting before the event had concluded.

Trump took hits from all sides — for his “friendship” with Hillary Clinton, his belief in working with Putin, his personal insult to Carly Fiorina, his personal insult to Jeb! Bush and wife — he said Jeb was soft on illegal immigration because his wife was half-Mexican — on his use of bankruptcy laws and the collapse of Atlantic City, where he once owned four casinos, on being insufficiently anti-abortion because he has attacked Scott Walker for defunding women’s health, and finally on, gah, inevitably, the revelation of his anti-vaccination ideas.

He hit back against it all pretty well, but the combination of no positive policy and relentless attack-defence left him looking tarnished. Trump lives off being the shiny, new thing, and this encounter left him looking shop-worn. One suspects he has peaked, but whether he will start to decline remains to be seen. He’s got to stay on top for another four entire months before the primaries begin in February.

Trump’s nearest rivals are Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina, neither of them political professionals, and Carson is now within a few percentage points of Trump in the early primary states. Carson had a good night, in that he got to talk a bit about his ghastly policies — such as offering illegal immigrants a role as guest workers — but also showing a lightness of touch. Thus, when he had Trump’s anti-vaxx stuff presented back to him for comment, he began with “well, he’s an OK doctor, I guess”, a reference to Trump’s earlier attack on Carson, one the world’s leading neurosurgeons. Possibly it was off-the-cuff, but most likely it was drilled. Carson has done only two events in the past fortnight; he’s presumably been doing morning-to-night debate prep. It paid off. He looked like he belonged on the stage, which he didn’t last time. It will reassure voters, and more importantly, backers.

Third-runner Carly Fiorina got into the top 10 — expanded to a top 11 — by a bit of CNN sleight-of-hand with the rules. Polling sky-high in the early primary states, she’s running low in national polls. But it would have been absurd for her to be left out. She got the debate’s best single hit at Trump (after he asked about Fiorina “who would vote for a face like that?”) coming off a Trump slap-down on Bush — “I heard ya, I heard ya” — she noted: “Mr Trump says he heard Mr Bush. Well, I think the women of America heard Mr Trump.” That was Trump’s worst moment — perhaps his “kryptonite” — and his only recovery was to go full Sinatra “I love Carly. She’s a beautiful woman.”

Fiorina has positioned herself as a sort of Thatcher-Reagan fusion: cut the bureaucracy, rebuild the sixth fleet, don’t negotiate with anyone. She uses her international credentials to present herself as both outsider and insider, and she has a ridiculous closer bit of her stump speech about “Lady Liberty and Lady Justice; one with the sword; another with the scales, etc” and I wasn’t the only one to get a Marvel Comics lesbian Slash scenario running through my head.

She is most vulnerable on her record at Hewlett-Packard, and Trump went in hard: “I wouldn’t let her run my companies.” It’s an interesting clash because what Trump is channelling for the audience is the glory days of Keynesian full-employment capitalism. He sounds like a cigar-chewing boss from that era. Fiorina sounds like someone from the downsizing era: imperious, elitist, disdainful. That and a degree of old-fashioned sexism on the part of Republicans may put a ceiling on her rise. Ceiling, hmmm …

The others? Well, Scott Walker, previous third-runner, is out for the moment and perhaps for good, barely getting a word in edgewise, and unable to find a place in the “Republican governors” array: Christie, Kasich, Walker. Kasich staked out a position as the only voice of anything approaching moderation. “We should make agreements with our allies before we do something about Iran, not go it alone,” he all but whined, and Chris Christie recovered ground by taking on Rand Paul on states’ rights and civil liberties (Christie’s against). Huckabee, having gained back most of the 80kg he lost before the 2008 run, looked tired and outplayed, restricted largely to defending Christian refusenik Kim Davis to such a degree that he virtually repudiated the role of the Supreme Court. It’s pure corn pone, a deeply cynical play to the peanut-growers gallery.

Ted Cruz — Jesus, how many of these fuckers are there!? — kept on the nativism beat, attacking Ben Carson as being in favour of “amnesty” (making existing illegal immigrants legal), for his guest worker policy. Both Cruz and Trump peddle fantastic solutions to illegal immigrants — that they can all be deported on “day one” — playing to a fantasy ideal of America restored. Marco Rubio (I almost forgot him altogether) … people say Rubio’s impressive, but I can never remember a thing he’s said. He’s forceful but measured, articulate, and incisive. He’d make a great young Tory MP in the UK. Here? Mmmm. Rand Paul struck the only independent note, arguing against getting involved in foreign wars, attacking the Iraq engagement head-on, and implicitly pointing out that the Republican foreign-policy position is simply buts: fight ISIS, fight Iran, fight Putin take responsibility for the whole world. Red meat for their base, but whoever wins will have to walk it back.

Which leaves Jeb Bush. How’d he do? He survived, which was all he needed to do. Trump was humiliated earlier on, when Jeb made a demand that the Donald apologise to his wife, getting Trump’s refusal and put-down — “you’ve got energy tonight, I like that” — and having nowhere to go. He came back at the end, when bizarrely the candidates were asked what Secret Service name they would choose. Christie: “Hindenberg” (actually, “Trueheart”). Fiorina chose “Secretariat”, the Phar Lap of the US (why the long face, Carly?). Bush used it for a twist: “Eveready, because it has a lot of energy.” Which got a big laugh, kinda wiped out his earlier humiliation and made him look in control. Enough for his campaign to not fall into utter crisis in any case.

So what happens now? Well were it any other time, some would start to be dropping out by now, as right-wing support started to group and move around. But that is on hold this time because of the 40-50% currently being held by Trump and Carson combined. No one believes that either will make it past the March 1 mega-primary, when 13, mainly Southern, states vote at the same time. Trump’s tarnishing will have made them all the more convinced of that. When those two falter and withdraw, their supporters will be up for grabs, and capable of being steered one way or the other by behind-the-scenes groups.

Not only could anyone of these contenders win the prize, Bobby Jindal and Rick Santorum from the undercard could be in contention too. Most suppose the big south primary will put Bush back in command, and that the usual talk of a fully fractured process and a brokered convention are just the dreams of psephologists and nerds. But no one’s saying “it’ll be Bush” with the same certainty as they were saying “it’ll be Romney”. This may well be the year when the Republican Party has a crucial showdown with itself, caught up in the struggle with the world as it is and the ancestor worship of the man whose library/theme park the debate was held in.

The choices were: Christie: Trueheart, Fiorina; Secretariat, Walker: Harley, Kasich: Unit One, Carson: One Nation, Huckabee: Duck Hunter, Rubio: Cohiba, Cruz: Gator, Bush: Eveready, Paul: Justice Never Sleeps, Trump: Humble

I would have suggested: Christie: Hindenberg, Fiorina: Bulimic, Walker: Decoy, Kasich: Kasich, Carson: Ore- … Scrubs, Huckabee: Carby Jesus, Rubio: Busboy, Cruz: Nutjob, Bush: TBA, Paul: Libtard Sperm-man, Trump: Humble.

Peter Fray

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