Opinion

Donald Trump as Harry Houdini

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

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump responds to a question during the town hall debate at Washington University in St Louis. This is the second of three presidential debates scheduled prior to the November 8th election. (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 come.

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.

Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.