If Bill Buckley were alive Thursday to see the 11th Republican presidential debate, he probably wouldn’t be on Friday.
In a debate that featured a penis joke and plenty of bluster, Donald Trump may have possibly — possibly! — been wounded.
For the first part of the debate, the billionaire front-runner delivered a string of meaningless and misleading word salads. But he sold them so well — and most viewers are so uninformed — that it probably didn’t matter.
Trump also probably didn’t hurt himself when he referred to his genitals. Indeed, if the past is any guide, that moment probably gained him 5 percentage points in the polls for refusing to be politically correct.
No, where Trump may have hurt himself — and I emphasize “may” since we are talking Donald Trump and the rules of the universe don’t seem to always apply to him — is in his exchange over Trump University and with his reversal on part of his immigration plan.
First came Trump’s partial immigration reversal.
“I’m changing,” Trump quickly retorted when Fox News moderator Megyn Kelly started to press him to square the position that appears on his website on visas for highly skilled workers with what he said at the CNBC Republican presidential debate. “We need highly skilled people in this country. If we can’t do it, we will get them in. And we do need in Silicon Valley, we absolutely have to have.”
This is not an outrageous position, but it is one that might anger immigration hawks who have endorsed his campaign, like Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions. Perhaps this Trump answer will plant a seed of doubt in some supporters who like Trump because of his tough immigration stance that he may not actually have deep convictions on the issue.
The second potentially problematic moment for Trump came in a long and heated exchange with Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and Kelly over Trump University.
“This is what the court of appeals found,” Kelly said, referring to one ruling in the series of suits and countersuits surrounding Trump University. “They said that the plaintiffs against you are like the Madoff victims.”
“They found that victims of con artists often sing the praises of their victimizers until they realize they have been fleeced,” she added.
When Trump earlier dismissed the allegations against him by students of Trump University, claiming the Better Business Bureau gave the university-in-name-only an A-rating, Kelly jumped in to fact check the real estate mogul.
“The rating from the Better Business Bureau was a D-minus, that’s the last publicly available rating in 2010,” she said.
By the middle of the exchange, Trump was flailing. He was being portrayed as a fraud and he didn’t like it.
“He’s trying to do to the American voter what he did to the people that signed up for this course,” Rubio chimed in. “He’s making promises he has no intention of keeping and it won’t just be $36,000 that they lose, it’s our country that’s at stake here. The future of the United States and the most important election in a generation and he’s trying to con people into giving them their vote just like he conned these people into giving him their money.”
After some more back and forth, where Trump tried to turn the attack on Rubio, Cruz went in for the kill.
“Megyn, let me just ask the voters at home, is this the debate you want playing out in the general election?” he asked. “The stakes in this election are too high. For seven years, millions of American, we’ve been struggling, wages have been stagnating, people are hurting, our constitutional rights are under assault. And if we nominate Donald, we’re going to spend the fall and the summer with the Republican nominee facing a fraud trial.”This long exchange over Trump University has the most potential to harm Trump because it is a tangible example of what anti-Trump forces within the GOP are attempting to convey to voters about Trump: that he is a con man. To paraphrase Rubio, he conned people out of money at Trump University, now he is trying to con his way into the White House.
Trump of course denies it all, claiming he will ultimately be vindicated when the lawsuits play themselves out. But if Trump is going to be defeated in the Republican primary — and that’s a huge, huge “if” at this point — it is this message that may be best suited to do him in.
According to reports, many millions of super PAC dollars could be spent on spreading the news of the Trump University fraud allegations. One poll suggests most voters have never heard about them. So what happens when voters learn more about the allegations? We may soon find out.