By Ray Nothstine
Why does Donald Trump continue to exceed expectations and, more often than not, come out on top in debate performances? Detractors have continually – and wrongly, so far – predicted his demise by either his own mouth or from the sheer fact of being pitted against seasoned politicians and policy experts.
The first candidate to relish attacking Trump on the debate stage was former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who despite a few good lines, such as you can’t just “insult your way into the presidency,” has yet to recover from Trump’s brutal dismissals from last year.
In Thursday’s debate in North Charleston, S.C., Texas Sen. Ted Cruz came closest to besting the billionaire candidate in an exchange concerning Cruz’s constitutional eligibility for the presidency, which has been raised by opponents because of his Canadian birth. Cruz wisely opted for humor over outrage in countering Trump’s claims that he may have eligibility issues. He even joked that he might consider Trump for the vice presidency slot and if the eligibility lawsuits ruled against him, suggesting it would open up the presidency and spotlight for Trump.
But the conservative Texas Senator created a blunder when he accused Trump of representing “New York values.” Cruz continued by noting that not many conservatives come out of Manhattan. Trump quickly countered that the godfather and intellectual mastermind of the modern conservative movement, William F. Buckley Jr., hailed from New York City. He then keenly spun the attack into an emotional opportunity to praise the city’s spirit, values, and ingenuity after 9/11. Trump’s command of the media means the usual minor trip-ups or slips by other candidates on the attack turn into major stories.
Time and again, Trump has proved he can handle the back-and-forth banter on the debate stage. Perhaps his greatest appeal is his propensity for performance and that he is the front man for a campaign that prides itself on brashness and verbal jousting, skills often attributed to New Yorkers.
Trump deftly spoke through a chorus of boos in Thursday’s debate when he attacked Cruz on the eligibility issue. Not many candidates would be willing to continue into a headwind of vocal dismissals and capitalize on the moment to make jokes about his opponent and their supporters.
He even unveiled unusual honesty in a political campaign by explaining that he is only raising the eligibility issue now because Cruz has surged in the polls.
While there may be deficiencies with Trump’s campaign organization, most of those will not be evident, if at all, until actual voting kicks off. Wealthy candidates are notorious too for not spending their own money on their political campaign despite public perceptions to the opposite. There have been reports and suggestions that Trump is underspending in more traditional media and get out the vote resources for February’s Iowa caucus.
Meanwhile, large swaths of the Republican establishment continue in the quest to rid themselves of Trump, but he will continue to reap the benefits from the free media of debates. His bravado and entertainment experience is a boon for a Republican electorate frustrated with inability in Congress to rollback or even contain much of President Obama’s agenda.
Trump’s debate performances reinforce that he has arrived politically. Furthermore, unlike many of his opponents, his unscripted style and apparent lack of handling reinforce an authenticity that is relished by those on the outside of a political system who are flustered by being taken for granted or simply ignored.
Ray Nothstine is deputy opinion editor at the North State Journal.
Image of Donald Trump courtesy Gage Skidmore.