By Ramesh Ponnuru
Donald Trump prospered after insulting John McCain and prisoners of war. His poll numbers kept rising after he went after Megyn Kelly and Fox News. Every time a pundit has predicted that he was about to implode, he moved up to new heights. Now the question is: Can he survive being boring?
The Trump of the second debate was a much more conventional figure than he has been during his spectacular rise. He was the center of the last one; this time, it was possible for long stretches to forget he was there. He has won a lot of fans by offending people and then refusing to apologize. At this debate, he seemed cowed by Carly Fiorina. She was the one who brought electricity to the stage.
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Trump's theatrics have benefited him by drawing attention and denying it to the other candidates, who have often been reduced to seeking some by talking about him. Within hours of a performance at the first debate that was mediocre, at best, he seized command of the media cycle by going after Kelly. After this second debate, on the other hand, he was anodyne: All the candidates had done well, he said.
Maybe Trump's new sobriety will overcome the doubts of many Republicans about him. The risk to him, though, is that he becomes just another Republican candidate, and both the media and the voters start to lose interest.
Another candidate, though, may have suffered a more serious blow by being boring: Scott Walker. He has been losing support in the polls. He needed to make Republican voters sit up and take notice, and to make Republican donors get out their checkbooks. He did neither. He said nothing memorable; he barely said anything at all.
Fiorina and Marco Rubio were the winners, at least according to the people I follow on Twitter. But they were the winners of the Aug. 6 debate, too, and only Fiorina's polls improved. She had a misstep, too, letting her exchange with Trump over their business bona fides go on a bit too long and getting called on it by Chris Christie. She returned to his criticism later, showing that it bothered her.
Jeb Bush's supporters may have hoped, when he got into the race, that he would outshine the other candidates in debate the way Mitt Romney had four years ago, that he would seem like the most serious and presidential of the bunch. That hasn't happened, in part because he is dealing with stronger competitors, in part because the party's divisions have grown more rancorous. (My wife works for his campaign.) But those supporters can take heart from the fact that he did better in the second debate than in the first, showing steadiness and good humor.
The first debate went off like a series of firecrackers, thanks to Trump. This one was more of a slog, which may be what the primary campaign is turning into as well.
I'd nominate another loser for the night: the whole Republican field. Bush was one of the few candidates to talk about economic growth. The debate told us more about where the candidates stand on vaccines, county clerks in Kentucky, and Ronald Reagan than what they would do about health care, the economy and college loans. The Republican candidates don't have to convince the voters to agree with them on every issue. They do have to convince them that they care about the same things.