What Happens When Republican Candidates Stop Being Real and Start Getting Polite

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Republican Presidential Candidates Debate In Miami Area
No more Mr. Mean Guys.Photo: Joe Raedle/2016 Getty Images

On last Thursday’s episode of the Republican debates, Marco called Donald a con man, Ted called the mogul a Clinton-lover, and Trump told everyone the truth about his penis. Somehow, no one was voted out of the house.

With all those tensions left unresolved, viewers eagerly anticipated this week’s installment. But when they flipped on their televisions, they were puzzled by what they found: Their reality show had apparently been preempted by some sort of political forum.

All of which is to say, the final GOP debate in Miami was far more civil — and far less entertaining — than its predecessors. In the case of Donald Trump, the transition makes sense. If he maintains his current polling in next Tuesday’s winner-take-all contests in Ohio and Florida, it will be virtually impossible for anyone to prevent his eventual nomination. At this point, there’s no reason to make controversial statements about 9/11 or the size of his genitalia (granted, there never was). Right now, his goal is to make it as easy as possible for the GOP to accept what he’s done to it. Since his Super Tuesday victory speech, Trump has been dabbling with a low-key, vaguely presidential version of his shtick. On Thursday, he maintained Trump Lite for most of the evening. And while other candidates’ opening statements were built on argument, Trump’s was largely a statement of fact, “One of the biggest political events anywhere in the world is happening right now with the Republican Party.”

In the case of his competitors, the sudden soft touch is a bit more mysterious. Sure, Trump hasn’t crumbled after two consecutive debates in which Cruz and Rubio savaged his long record of snake-oil skullduggery. But his lead in the polls of Ohio and Florida did tighten. At this point, the non-Trump candidates need to generate a seismic shift in the race to deny him the nod. Previously, they tried to achieve this by branding Trump as a fascistic con man. Tonight, they treated him as a legitimate candidate who’s wrong about some things. It’s difficult to see how the latter could possibly be more effective.

It’s also possible that the RNC, or some group of embarrassed donors, sent a memo pleading for the circus to end. But even if the show is over, the clown is still in charge.

Political incorrectness got Trump to this precipice. Civility may well put him over the top.