Rarely has a presidential candidates’ debate so closely reflected the overall state of the race as the 11th Republican gabfest held in Detroit tonight. After Super Tuesday, Marco Rubio called for emergency collective action by the remaining contenders to stop the “con man” Trump without adjudicating for the present which of them would win the prize. Mitt Romney confirmed the cabal and its everyone-take-their-best-shot strategy in a big speech today. It’s beginning to sink in that this strategy almost certainly depends on a “contested convention,” the first for Republicans in forty years.
The candidate most blessed by this development was John Kasich, who almost overnight has gone from being an annoying impediment to the consolidation of anti-Trump and anti-Cruz votes behind Marco Rubio to a valued collaborator who might knock off the Donald in winner-take-all Ohio. And tonight, as Rubio and Cruz (and the Fox moderators) focused the most extended fire of the entire campaign on Trump, Kasich was left alone to devote his entire debate performance to the recitation of his record and message to Michiganders — a state where he needs to do reasonably well on Tuesday as a springboard to Ohio on March 15.
As a starting point for the anti-Trump collective-action cabal, tonight’s debate was probably about as good as it gets. For long, long minutes Rubio beat up on the Donald as a con man and Cruz savaged him as a crypto-Democrat, the two lines of attack regularly reinforced by the moderators and converging in the impression that Trump’s a terrible gamble, even for the people who are most attracted to him. From long experience during this campaign, it would be foolish to assume the debate damaged Trump’s standing significantly. But if it didn’t, perhaps the man is indeed bulletproof. He did seem uncharacteristically flustered at times.
It’s unlikely Rubio — who for the second debate in a row got into long insult-laden cross-talk exchanges with Trump — or Cruz helped themselves that much. But again, in the collective-action scenario, they’re like crime bosses who’ve agreed to rub out a common opponent while recognizing that they will have their own reckoning down the line. Meanwhile, Kasich was either smart or lucky enough to ignore the carnage and speak for himself, though if he loses Ohio, he will be dumped from the convention cabal unceremoniously for failure to bring delegates to the table.
One very important moment occurred at the very end of the debate, when the candidates were asked if they’d reaffirm the “loyalty pledge” they all took late last summer, promising to support the ultimate Republican nominee. It was framed initially as a specific challenge to Rubio, who has been promoting the #NeverTrump meme and treating the mogul’s potential nomination as an unendurable violation of Republican principles. Indeed, Trump has noticed that and has openly suggested he might not feel so inclined to observe the loyalty pledge and forswear an independent candidacy if the other candidates drop their own pledges. But all the candidates backed away from loyalty-pledge brinkmanship tonight and promised the ultimate collective action to prevent the horror of another Democratic president. For Rubio, “never” apparently doesn’t mean what it says.
Trump may have missed a strategic opportunity to make his own renewal of the loyalty-pledge contingent on not having the nomination “stolen” from him by some Establishment skullduggery in Cleveland. But as the front-runner — for now — he may have figured he could afford to be magnanimous. If Rubio wins Florida and Lucky John Kasich wins Ohio on March 15 and the cabal steams on towards the later primaries, Trump may have, for once, guessed wrong.