16 December 2015

Republican debate: Trump thinks he can win the nomination


It wasn’t a captivating debate and the whole of Twitter seemed to sigh – when near the end of the debate – the CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer told viewers that “we’re only just beginning”. Only just beginning?! Nearly two hours into this thing! Have our watches stopped working?

Fortunately, one short advertising break later we all got something big to note. Asked if he’d run against the Republican nominee if it was not him, Donald Trump was more emphatic than he’d ever been before. “I am totally committed to the Republican Party,“ he said. Asked after the debate he was even clearer. Pressed on whether he’d be true to his pledge not to run as an independent he uttered the three words: “no matter what.”

This has been the Republicans’ greatest fear – that Trump would lose the nomination but then divide the anti-Democratic vote by running as a third party candidate. The second greatest fear of Republican leaders, of course, is that he’ll be win their party’s nomination. One poll has him behind Hillary Clinton by 10%. Marco Rubio, in contrast, would beat the near certain Democratic nominee by 3%. Tonight in Las Vegas, however, Trump did little to harm his chances. More significantly, none of the other candidates tried very hard to harm his chances.

The only candidate who tried to knock the front-running hotelier off his perch was a higher energy Jeb Bush. The former Governor of Florida repeatedly needled Trump and succeeded in getting under his skin. “You’re a tough guy, Jeb. You’re tough. You’re real tough. I’m at 42 and you’re at 3” – snapped the poll-obsessed Trump after he’d been accused of getting his policy ideas from TV shows and of trying to insult his way into the White House.

The two other top candidates didn’t try to exploit Trump’s quick temper. Senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio were happier fighting each other. Rubio did perfectly okay tonight and was the smoothest, warmest candidate on the stage but he did not have the better in exchanges with the prize-winning Princeton debater, Ted Cruz. Cruz painted Rubio as weak on immigration and Rubio did not have any strong counterpunches. Cruz’s smug grin got wider as the evening went on – not least after Trump withdrew the charge he made just three days ago that Cruz did not have the right judgment or temperament to be president.

Only Lindsey Graham, the Senator from South Carolina, repeatedly attacked Trump but that was during the so-called “undercard debate” that took place two hours before the main showdown. Graham repeatedly offered solidarity and warmth to American Muslims and Muslims across the world. He apologised to CNN’s global audience for Trump’s anti-Muslim tone. Donald Trump’s war of civilisations rhetoric would have ISIL dancing in the streets, Graham quipped, if only ISIL believed in dancing. It was just one of a number of memorable interventions from a man on 1% in opinion polls.

Both the undercard and main debates majored on the Isis threat – with immigration and border security coming in as the second big topic. There was little in this foreign policy and security debate on Ukraine, Crimea, climate change, nuclear proliferation, North Korea, or China’s cyber attacks on US business. The debate betrayed how anxious America is. One poll this week suggested fear of terror is as high as it has been in the post-9/11 era. That fear was most exemplified by Marco Rubio’s remark that it would be wrong to let even 9,999 refugees into America if one of them turned out to be a terrorist. On that basis no American should ever cross the road, get on a plane or take on any risk. There is greater danger in closing the door on the world than opening your hearts to some of its unhappiest citizens.

The final debate of 2015 will probably strengthen Trump. He’s looked at the opinion polls and thinks he can win the Republican nomination. Personally, I still think he won’t get the support he needs in the winner-takes-all states that vote in March. His negatives are simply too high. We’ll then see if he disowns tonight’s pledge and runs as an independent. Frank Underwood of the House of Cards mini-series kept coming into my mind. Remember FU’s pledge not to seek re-election? Read my lips, Trump may not have been totally honest tonight but he gave the pledge because he’s never been more hopeful of winning the Republican race.

Tim Montgomerie is a columnist for the The Times, a Senior Fellow at Legatum Institute and co-founder of the new website The Good Right. His “reform of capitalism” report for the Legatum Institute was published on 4th November.