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Donald Trump as Harry Houdini

GOP nominee may not turn campaign around, but won the debate

GOP presidential nominee Donald J. Trump is well-positioned to win Iowa's six electoral votes on Tuesday, Nathan Gonzales writes. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
GOP presidential nominee Donald J. Trump is well-positioned to win Iowa's six electoral votes on Tuesday, Nathan Gonzales writes. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Any conventional candidate facing such intense scrutiny would have
slunk into this debate with his tail between his legs; Donald Trump
strode in with a binder full of women. I’m referring to, of course,
his pre-debate meeting with women who had accused former President
Bill Clinton of sexual impropriety. It was a harbinger of things to

Most candidates having been embroiled in such a scandal would have
appeared contrite and sheepish. But Trump is shameless, and he
instead chose to go on the attack. No normal candidate would do this,
and no traditional strategist would advise it. This sort of judgment
makes him a dangerous candidate. It was Hillary Clinton who would
spend most of the night playing defense.

Clinton might have knocked Trump out of the race tonight. At least,
she could have shifted the narrative to a “dead man walking” scenario.

Instead (and amazingly), I think Donald Trump won.

On paper, this debate should have been a disaster for Trump. He
entered the skirmish having lost the first debate, being down in the
polls, and reeling from a major scandal. And yet, somehow the debate
provided him the opportunity to change the subject.

Not a normal candidate

Under normal circumstances, saying you would jail your opponent,
boasting about not paying taxes, or talking about sending out a tweet
that asked people to view a sex tape would be interpreted as beyond
the pale in a debate setting. But these are not normal circumstances,
and this is not a normal candidate.

He discussed topics ranging from Obamacare to Aleppo to Benghazi to
Hillary’s emails to wind and solar energy. This means he was talking
about something other than his sexually aggressive comments about
women. Some of the debate was even (of all things!) boring. Sometimes
the candidates reverted to talking points. This normalized him as a
candidate. Other times, Trump was actually humorous.

That’s not to say the topic of Trump’s aggressive sex talk was totally
avoided. It wasn’t. But it was dispatched with fairly early on.
Clearly, Trump’s comments were the dominant topic of conversation in
the two days leading up to the debate, yet it was relegated to the
first twenty minutes of the debate (and constituted just a fraction of
the conversation).

Something else helped Trump, too. I had supposed that this debate,
which was billed as a “town hall” format, would include lots of
average Americans asking questions. This, I assumed, would benefit a
candidate who could emote — decidedly not a Trumpian attribute.

A missed opportunity

But audience questions were kept to a minimum. For whatever reason,
most of the questions were asked by the co-moderators. This was, I
think, a missed opportunity for a dramatic moment or interaction.
There was nothing that compared with the moment in 1992 when Bill
Clinton felt our collective pain. It’s much easier for Trump to tangle
with media personalities (at one point, it felt like Martha Raddatz
was debating him, herself) than to tangle with regular folks.

I’m not suggesting Trump turned his campaign around. He’s behind in
the polls, and he has done little to get the most “gettable” voters
(college-educated Republican women) in his camp. It remains to be seen
whether the public will judge Trump for invading Clinton’s space and
hulking behind her.

But I think this campaign continues. And, if you were paying attention
this weekend, that wasn’t necessarily a foregone conclusion. In fact,
it was an act of prestidigitation that Harry Houdini might have been
proud of.

Hillary Clinton also provided a good reason for wavering Republicans
to actually vote for Trump. In fact, she did a better job than Trump
at that. I’m referring to her answer to the question about appointing
Supreme Court justices. Rather than pretending that the court was
apolitical or that she would appoint someone to interpret or defend
the Constitution, Clinton ticked off a list of liberal special-interest goals she hoped to achieve.

The two didn’t shake hands at the beginning of the debate, but Trump
even ended on a nice note, saying that Hillary Clinton is a fighter
who doesn’t quit. Granted, he was asked to say something nice about
her, but — to my amazement — he did. It was a nice moment, which is bad news for Hillary Clinton.

Roll Call columnist Matt K. Lewis is a senior contributor to the Daily Caller and author of the book “Too Dumb to Fail.” Follow him on Twitter @MattKLewis.

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