On Less Crowded Debate Stage, Donald Trump’s Weaknesses Stand Out

Republican presidential candidates (from left) Marco Rubio, Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and John Kasich during the primary debate at Detroit's Fox Theatre on March 3.

By DAN SCHNUR  – – – –

Dan Schnur is director of the University of Southern California’s Unruh Institute of Politics and was communications director for John McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign. He is on Twitter: @DanSchnur.

If Donald Trump does not become the Republican nominee for president, his single biggest error will have been not paying several of the departed candidates to stay in the race. Mr. Trump had his second consecutive poor debate performance Thursday night, primarily because there has been nowhere for him to hide.

When 10 (or even six or five) candidates were on the stage, Mr. Trump had the luxury of picking his moments for confrontation and bluster, and then retreating from the conversation. If he stumbled through the substance of a policy matter, there were simply too many candidates and too little time for adequate follow-up questions. Now the heat stays on him for extended periods, and he resorts to denials of past positions or insulting his opponents.

It is increasingly difficult to fathom how so many voters are willing to look past Mr. Trump’s lack of knowledge and his personal belligerence to support his candidacy. But they do. For months, the commentariat (myself included) has reflexively talked about voters’ “frustration” and “anger” as an explanation for their support of Mr. Trump. But after watching the last two debates, I admit that I simply do not understand how all that resentment adds up to a vote for someone who doesn’t know what he’s talking about and tries to cover it up with personal attacks on others.

I have no idea whether the belated assault on Mr. Trump from the Republican establishmentwill succeed. But the most effective way of exposing his lack of knowledge and lack of civility would seem to be more debates with fewer candidates.

Marco Rubio is still calibrating how hostile and how personal to be when attacking Mr. Trump. Ted Cruz is beginning to figure out how to get under Mr. Trump’s skin. John Kasich‘s sunny optimism is attracting admiration but seems a little too detached from the rest of the conversation. Together, they are beginning to build a case against Donald Trump. There is, however, no telling whether enough time remains for sufficient scrutiny before the convention to derail him.

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