In what will go down as one of the most interesting and entertaining political debates in modern times, Donald Trump put on a show to rival anything on TV. The Fox News debate in Cleveland was sharp, edgy, well paced and tough.
While the fury of Trump supporters was aimed mostly at Fox superstar Megyn Kelly, Trump's real foes were a stable of tired old political pundits who talk only to one another and their league of political friends in Washington and New York. Many of them so obviously tried to discredit Trump and his performance that they failed to recognize that it was not the debate per se that may have hurt Trump's standing in the polls. If he was damaged, it was instead because of the efforts of these very pundits to carry the message of the GOP establishment -- the one that Trump doesn't buy into.
Here's a hint to all these talking heads: A debater who answers a question by mentioning Rosie O'Donnell and gets a huge laugh from the audience is not losing the debate, particularly when he is responding to a tough "when did you stop beating your wife"-type question.
Frankly, and to my shock, one of the weaker performances in the contest last week was that of former Florida Governor Jeb Bush. Those who know Bush know that he is bright, has a great personality, and usually performs well in debates. But in this first of many contests, that Jeb Bush did not show up.
One who quite noticeably did show up was Bush's political protege, Florida U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio. He was poised, confident and -- at appropriate times -- funny. His message of a youthful new approach resonated both through his answers and in his appearance. And fortunately for Rubio, his performance was not highlighted by some one-liner or fluke moment of grandeur. He instead turned in a solid, stable showing.
As for Trump, it didn't surprise me that he won most post-debate online polls and that he held his lead in the NBC/SurveyMonkey national poll conducted after the contest. (For those who don't know, SurveyMonkey, which is an online system, polled the last presidential contest nationally with greater accuracy than any other polling organization.) While Trump is starting to slide in a few of the latest polls, he is still the leader in almost all of them.
My own firm's polling of 11 southern states, conducted last week for news organizations, showed Trump to be particularly popular in the South. He was so far ahead in several states that he could lose half his support there and still be ahead of the other candidates.
But as refreshing as Trump is with his unwillingness to bend to political correctness, and with the polls still in his favor, he nevertheless must come to grips with the fact that he is running for president. Endless tweets that seem mean-spirited will grow old and moreover, they will turn into fodder for negative TV ads in the months to come.
Trump's notion of a wall along the U.S./Mexico border, with a "big, beautiful door" in the middle, was lampooned by the D.C. media elite. But to many viewers of the debate it made sense -- if not literally then at least figuratively. Yes, he will have to add more meat on the bones when it comes to real policy. And yes, he will also have to be more cautious in some of his statements. But in the end, Trump must be Trump. That's what has him leading the race.
Unlike most of the candidates, he has money to compete deep into the primary season. He could easily lose Iowa and New Hampshire and then enter the South, where he is much stronger, and roll on until the final primaries and caucuses. He's attracting support from the populist segment of GOP voters, a large group rarely recognized by media.
As for Rubio, his cool, calm, yet animated debate performance bodes well for his chances next year. And the contrast with the other candidates, from the lively Trump to the currently drab Bush, has Rubio on the way to a better standing in the polls. My bet is that Trump remains a force, Rubio continues to rise in the polls and Bush eventually finds his "inner Jeb" and returns to fighting form.