Last night I was in the Sun Dome in Tampa listening to 11,000 people chanting, “We want Trump!” Tonight I was in Stevie Tomato’s, a sports bar in Fort Myers, at the Florida Gulf Coast University Young Republicans Debate Watch Party, where none of those in attendance wanted Trump. Which might have been encouraging news for those candidates so energetically trading low blows for dominance of the “establishment lane,” were it not for the fact that the assembled flower of campus conservatism this evening numbered precisely four—Alex, Ricky, Doug, and a young state-GOP official who preferred not to be named in these pages.
The Republican Party’s continuing failure to come up with a consensus alternative to the Greatest Shill on Earth hasn’t just made Trump the prohibitive favorite in the South Carolina primary on February 20. It has also given a television audience who wouldn’t believe Bernie Sanders if he told them the earth rotates around the sun repeated exposure to the notion that the Republican party is the tool of “lobbyists and special interests,” Jeb Bush is their creature, George W. Bush “lied us into war in Iraq,” Ted Cruz is an even bigger liar, while corporate America has stashed “$2.5 trillion offshore.” And by the way, Planned Parenthood does “wonderful things having to do with women’s health.”
Meanwhile, Rubio also announced that “Ted Cruz has been telling lies,” Cruz called Rubio a lackey of “the donor class,” John Kasich pointed out Jeb Bush’s ruinous economic legacy in Florida, while Bush denied he ever threatened to “moon” anyone.
And the Republicans still have three more debates left! Given how much all of these candidates shrink in stature with every outing, Democrats must be tempted to start donating to the GOP just to make sure the process keeps going.
My guess is that South Carolina really is Jeb’s last stand—and probably the party’s last chance to anoint a “mainstream” alternative to Trump in time to get any kind of lift before Super Tuesday. Unlike the confident showman I saw in Tampa, Trump was at his least appealing on Saturday—a petulant, hectoring bully with less self-control than most first graders. Alex, who still had a picture of Rand Paul on his mobile phone’s home screen, left halfway through the proceedings.
On my way into the Sun Dome I spoke with four young women from Delta Zeta, a sorority at the University of South Florida. Though they all claimed to be Republicans, none of them seemed terribly interested in Trump’s policies. “I just want to see him shake and turn red,” one of them, a sophomore from Pittsburgh, told me.
Watching Trump’s dismal performance in the debate, it was tempting to concur with Cruz’s dismissal of the New Yorker as “an amazing entertainer.” Yet in terms of his appeal as the right’s anti-politician, Trump for once may not have been exaggerating when he told Fox this was his best debate yet. (Any doubts I had on that score were settled by Bill Kristol, who called the evening “a disaster” for The Donald.) The invited audience might have booed repeatedly, but Trump wasn’t speaking to them—his comments, as usual, were aimed at the television audience.
“If you don’t like politicians, I guess you’re voting for Donald Trump,” said Ricky, sadly (as a rule, people who hate politicians don’t join the Young Republicans.) If he’s right, perhaps it’s time to take the idea of President Trump a whole lot more seriously.
In the meantime, I hope the young woman from Pittsburgh was watching. She, at least, would have been satisfied by the performance.