Last night’s Republican presidential debate was held in Detroit, not Las Vegas, so there was no official over/under betting line on how many minutes it would take for one of the four remaining candidates for the GOP nomination to refer to height, weight or body parts in front of an audience of millions. But if you took the over on anything less than four minutes, you lost.
It has actually come to this in the Republican presidential primary. Last week, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio mocked frontrunner billionaire Donald Trump, claiming that Trump had small hands and suggesting none-too-subtly that men with small hands are not, ahem, manly.
In the opening minutes of last night’s debate, hosted by Fox News Channel, host Bret Baier went straight at Rubio for lowering the tone of the campaign.
“Sen. Rubio, three weeks ago, you said, ‘I don’t do the personal attacks, primarily because it’s not who I am, because it’s beneath the office I’m seeking, and also because I don’t want to embarrass my kids.’ But in last week, you’ve mocked Mr. trump’s hands, you’ve made fun of his spelling, you’ve called him a con artist, you’ve suggested he wet himself backstage at the last debate, along with other jokes and jabs. So, what happened?”
Rubio immediately went into serious mode, claiming that, much to his regret, the media had forced him to resort to puerile insults to get attention. The argument might have carried a little more weight had the Fox cameras not caught him grinning and wiggling his hands in front of the camera as Baier questioned him.
Trump, demonstrating the grade-school-level impulse control that has marked his campaign thus far, completely avoided the off-ramp to the high road that Rubio offered him. Instead, he took the opportunity to assure the crowd that he is indeed well endowed.
“Look at hose hands,” he said, holding them up to the camera. “Are they small hands?” the crowd roared. “And, he referred to my hands, ‘If they’re small, something else must be small.’”
Looking out at the crowd, he said, “I guarantee you there’s no problem. I guarantee you.”
In defense of the Fox News Channel moderators, who in addition to Baier included Chris Wallace and, most notably, Megyn Kelly, the debate got better after that. (Kelly, who Trump attacked viciously after the first Fox debate in August, was the billionaire’s ostensible reason for skipping the last FNC debate.)
In the end, Trump lost the debate on points, but won it by remaining on his feet throughout.
Discussion ranged through domestic and foreign policy, and at every turn both Rubio and Cruz had attacks ready for Trump, whose answers, as they always are, were loud, authoritative-sounding, and substance-free.
Wallace nailed him on multiple claims about how his proposed elimination of waste, fraud and abuse in the government and, more specifically, his promise to saved hundreds of billions of dollars by letting government-run health insurance negotiate drug prices, were nonsense once anyone looked at the math.
Trump also plainly backtracked on the hardline immigration stance that has won him so many voters thus far. He said that he had changed his position on the immigration of skilled workers, saying that allowing some in was necessary for the success of US businesses. Whether or not that shift will penetrate to his base is, at this point, unclear.
Both Rubio and Cruz delivered multiple well-placed bows, hitting Trump on his lack of policy specificity across virtually every element of the federal government. Trump not once, but twice, insisted that through sheer force of will, he would persuade US military leaders to authorize their troops to commit war crimes.
At various points in the debate, the moderators had to ask Trump, Cruz and Rubio to stop shouting at each other, if only so that the audience could understand what was being said.
Lost in the shuffle for much of the debate was Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who by simply maintaining his cool, has managed to look, if not presidential, then at least like a grownup through the most recent debates.
Between Saturday and Sunday, another Republican 175 delegates will be awarded to the remaining GOP candidates in Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, and Puerto Rico. The most recent polls in those states show Trump a formidable lead.
Or, as The Donald might say, “I guarantee you, it’s yuge.”