It’s a piece of wisdom, passed down through the generations from Ralph Waldo Emerson to Omar from the television show “The Wire” -- “You come at the king, you best not miss.” (Emerson may have put it slightly differently.)
On Thursday night, Fox News came at the king, and missed. The top-tier presidential debate began at 9 p.m. eastern time with a direct challenge to billionaire and former reality television star Donald Trump. Moderator Bret Baier asked all the candidates if they would pledge to support the eventual Republican nominee and not to run as an independent should they fail to win the nomination.
There was no disguising that this was meant to single out Trump, the only man on the crowded stage who has openly flirted with a third-party candidacy, and likely the only candidate who could viably support one. When the candidates were asked to raise their hands if they couldn’t make such a pledge, only Trump’s went up.
The reaction was instantaneous shrieks of approval and applause, followed by a growing rumble of boos that eventually drowned out the cheers.
Moderator Bret Baier reminded Trump that many experts believe an independent candidacy that pulls votes away from the Republican nominee would hand the election to the Democrats -- and likely, as Baier reminded ominously, to “another Clinton.”
“I fully understand,” Trump replied before Baier had even finished.
A few moments later, Trump was asked point blank: You’re not going to make the pledge today?
“I will not make the pledge at this time.”
Again, instantaneous shouts of approval, followed by a cascade of catcalls.
It’s not clear what Fox News meant to achieve by opening the debate with what amounted to a frontal assault on Trump. And such a high profile opening to the event likely didn’t come to pass without buy-in from everyone up to and including Fox News president Roger Ailes.
If the objective was to take down the loudmouthed billionaire who leads Republican polls by double digits, it failed.
Trump’s stock in trade is his willingness to say and do things that outrage many people but thrill a vocal element of the GOP base. And while there may be a majority in the party that either don’t like him or think he’s simply bad for the brand, there’s no questioning that there is a hard core of significant size that simply likes to hear someone bash immigrants, call politicians stupid, and defend sexist comments with complaints about political correctness. Trump did all of those things with undisguised gusto Thursday night, and a large part of the crowd loved him for it.
That’s the worry Baier was channeling in the question about an independent run for president. In the end, Trump probably can’t summon enough support to win the GOP nomination outright. But a third-party effort could pull enough voters away – the ones cheering his refusal to back down under Baier’s challenge -- to cripple the eventual nominee in the general election.
Many of Trump’s supporters were angered by what they saw as an attempt by the Fox anchors to undercut the billionaire, and in the aftermath of the debate social media was littered with denunciations of the network – many of which Trump was happy to amplify by retweeting them through his personal account.
The focus on Trump was also apparent when news organizations tallied up which candidates were given the most opportunities to speak. Trump, according to The New York Times, was far and away the most frequent speaker, with three times more questions and requests for rebuttal directed at him than to some of his opponents.
Trump and his allies spent the morning Friday in a gleeful victory lap of the morning shows, where the mogul claimed to have had a great time the night before, even as he attacked the Fox News moderators for being unfair to him.
He also took to Twitter, where his official account retweeted a comment referring to Fox News moderator Megyn Kelly as a “bimbo” and took a few shots at her himself. He also called GOP pollster Frank Luntz a “low class slob” after a focus group convened by the pollster criticized him.
.@FrankLuntz is a low class slob who came to my office looking for consulting work and I had zero interest. Now he picks anti-Trump panels!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 7, 2015
By Friday morning, the Trump camp was pushing out the results of overnight Internet-based polling that asked respondents who had won the debate. The polls are not considered particularly reliable by anyone serious about research, but that didn’t stop Trump from bragging that he’d won the Drudge Report poll going away, as well as polls by Time magazine and, interestingly, a poll by one of Fox’s own affiliates.