The Fox Business debate made clear that the Republican primary is Donald Trump’s race to lose. It’s not only that Trump continues his months-long polling lead and the debate won’t do anything to change that. It’s that Trump’s considerable political skills were on display Thursday evening. Provocative, gauche, funny, emphatic, and fearless, Trump doesn’t back down when the crowd boos him, he holds his own against more polished opponents, and he has identified and exploited the anger of many Republican and independent voters.

But Trump has done something more. He’s become the focal point of the 2016 campaign in a way no other candidate of either party has. Fair or not, it’s Trump’s statements and policy declarations that become fodder for debate questions and force his GOP rivals to respond or adjust. Look at how he’s changed the tenor of Marco Rubio’s campaign from being sunny and future-oriented to being exasperated at the state of the country under Barack Obama. Trump’s suggestion that Democrats would challenge the legality of Ted Cruz’s status as a “natural born citizen” forced Cruz to go on the attack—something Cruz did not anticipate having to do this early…

For much of 2015, the question was, Is Trump serious? The past week should have settled that in the affirmative. So the question becomes: Who will stop Trump? Ted Cruz? Marco Rubio? Chris Christie? Hillary Clinton? And what happens if, as I suspect, the Trump phenomenon cannot be stopped?

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The message that came out of this, the sixth televised G.O.P. debate, was that the Republican nomination is increasingly looking like Trump’s to lose. With the possible exception of Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush, who took their shots at the billionaire from New York, the other candidates seemed to have given up any hope of standing up to him. And neither Cruz nor Bush managed to knock Trump down. Now, it appears, only the Republican voters can do that. According to the latest polls, they don’t seem to be in any rush.

After the debate finished, Ari Fleischer, George W. Bush’s former spokesman, estimated on Twitter that Trump now had a sixty per cent chance of getting the nomination. That’s just one person’s opinion, of course, but it reflects a widespread fatalism in the Republican establishment. Trump, once regarded as a political neophyte who would inevitably self-destruct, is now increasingly seen as an unstoppable force.

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What was unthinkable a few months ago no longer is. Trump’s durability in national polls and his standing in the early states have forced GOP leaders — and all his rivals — to confront the possibility that the New York billionaire and reality TV star could end up leading the party into the fall campaign against the Democrats.

Trump is anything but a typical front-runner. In fact, he is the most unconventional and atypical front-runner for as long as anyone can remember. And unless and until he actually wins primaries and caucuses, the race will remain what it has been for months: a confusing mash-up among a relative handful of candidates looking to pick up the pieces of a possible Trump breakdown…

Or it could be a race pitting Trump and Cruz, with establishment candidates destroying one another in the battle for supremacy, the ultimate evidence that the balance of power in the Republican Party has now tipped in favor of the anti-establishment grass roots.

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[T]he debate, the sixth in a nomination contest that has defied predictions, left a GOP establishment that fears disastrous repercussions from a Trump nomination no closer to finding a way to head him off, with the first balloting now a little more than two weeks away.

Trump repeatedly dismissed the nuanced arguments of his peers in favor of the blunt and forceful assertions that have made the billionaire the party’s national front-runner…

Declaring that “I will gladly accept the mantle of anger,” he made clear that he understands what many of his establishment foes still seem not to — that much of what they see as weaknesses in his campaign are the wellsprings of its support. But in this debate, he also sanded some of his sharp edges with humor and worked to humanize himself.

His opponents, by contrast, often acting with visible desperation to attract attention as voters start making up their minds, seemed mostly intent on fighting among themselves. That precluded any single candidate from rising above the others.

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Has Trump already conquered the Republican Party?

It’s more than a legitimate question to ask, especially after the results from our new NBC/WSJ poll and after last night’s GOP debate. Let’s start with the poll: Not only has Trump more than doubled his national lead — from five points to 13 — two-thirds of GOP primary voters (65%) say they could see themselves supporting him. That’s up from just 23% who said this back in March.

What’s more, in hypothetical one-on-one match-ups, Trump tops Rubio, 52%-45%, though he loses to Cruz, 51%-43%. And in a three-way race, it’s Trump 40%, Cruz 31%, and Rubio 26%. So the combined outsider/insurgent wing is at 71%, while the establishment wing is at 26%. Then at last night’s GOP debate, we noticed three developments: 1) Trump has improved as a debater (his response to “New York values”; 2) his antagonists like Jeb Bush have been reduced to asking him to merely “reconsider” (!!!) his Muslim ban proposal; and 3) a cheerful optimist like Marco Rubio has turned much gloomier, suggesting Trump’s influence on the race has even trickled down to the Florida senator…

You know the different stages of grief — shock and denial, pain and guilt, anger and bargaining. Well, have we finally reached the last stage, acceptance?

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So looking at the debate at a distance, in terms of the strategic challenges facing the candidates and lasting damage done or not done, I’m inclined to one big conclusion: Donald Trump won.

Why? Because he’s ahead in the race and suffered no real damage…

It’s pretty simple, I think: If the other candidates don’t raise issues that are a.) important to GOP voters, and on which b.) Trump is at a comparative disadvantage, they’re not likely to gain on Trump. To the contrary, they allow the impression to further sink in that there’s no reason to worry that a Trump presidency would endanger important conservative policy goals—such as repealing and replacing Obamacare, appointing constitutionalist judges, or standing up Putin (and enemies abroad more generally). If the other candidates continue to allow voters to assume that there’s no difference between Trump and them on these (and other) issues, voters will continue to become increasingly comfortable casting their ballot for Trump.

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Months ago, during the Summer of Trump, Republicans looked at the appearance of this gross, comic, orange interloper among them with a mix of shock and disdain. Fox News tried to discredit him as a serious candidate; nobody else onstage knew quite what to do with him. Since then, Trump has created facts on the ground, making himself an indispensable element of the party. He now seems completely normal.

Part of it is that Trump has gotten better, more polished. His cartoonish facial gestures come less frequently. He is less outrageous (and less funny). He seems to control his tone more effectively.

But mainly, Republicans have decided to start treating him as a regular candidate and a member of their party in good standing, rather than an impostor who has hijacked it on a lark

Jeb Bush went after Trump on his unfathomable proposal to exclude all Muslim immigrants, but he did so almost as a supplicant, asking him to “reconsider.” It was as if Bush was afraid Trump would turn on him again, and Trump, recognizing Bush’s gesture as a plea for mercy, reciprocated.

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A Republican National committeeman delivered a call-to-arms against Donald Trump during a closed-door GOP meeting on Thursday, urging his colleagues to take a forceful stand against those who he said are destroying the party’s brand…

“You can argue with me, but we’re almost terrorized as members of our party. ‘Shut up. Toe the line, embrace each other, and let’s go forward.’ I understand that. But there is a limit to loyalty. I am loyal to this party by speaking out on these very issues,” he said at the private breakfast meeting…

“As a party, we owe it to ourselves to speak up, and not let the tail wag the dog, and not let someone say, all of a sudden, ‘If you don’t play my game, then I’m running as an independent.”…

At one point, Redfield acknowledges the visceral anger that Trump, with his tell-it-like-it-is style, has tapped into — but warns that letting anger consume the party would prove costly. “You always hear the argument, ‘Well, this is what people are thinking.’ So, if this is what people are thinking in this party, as far as I’m concerned, we’re going in the wrong direction,” he says.

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“I’ve been much more blunt in the past couple of weeks when I talk to these guys,” said Rick Wilson, an outspoken Trump critic and political strategist who advises several major Republican donors. “I’ve said, Look, you guys pay me money to tell you what’s going on, and you have to start taking [Trump] seriously. When President Hillary Clinton names her second or third Supreme Court justice, I’m going to call and tell you, ‘I told you so.’ When Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer fucks over your industry, I’m going to call and say, ‘I told you so.’”

Liz Mair, another Republican strategist who doubles as a Trump-hostile talking head on cable news, expressed frustration that the GOP donor class isn’t urgently mobilizing against The Donald.

“The Republican Party’s strategy with regard to dealing with Trump is basically prayer — and that’s it,” said Mair, who launched a “guerilla” political group in November aimed at “destroying” the candidate. “I think there’s a lot of people in the party who go to bed every night and pray that our long partisan nightmare will be over. But they don’t do anything to change the equation.”

“It’s disconcerting, to be honest,” Mair added.

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Trump is an angry man, and Republican voters—or at least, 34 percent of them—love it. His competitors know this, and they’re trying to mimic it. Cruz promises maximum force against “radical Islam”; Rubio angrily denounces President Obama for “undermining the Second Amendment”; and Christie channels his old, raging New Jerseyan persona by slamming his opponents for dodging questions (“You already had your chance, Marco, and you blew it!”). But none of these candidates is as convincing or as compelling as Trump, who commands the stage with firm attacks on America’s alleged enemies—foreign and domestic—and can easily parry his own opponents’ attacks, as he did in an exchange with Cruz on “New York values.” Trump hasn’t just improved from his previous debates; he’s grown beyond expectations. You could argue, fairly, that he’s the best politician in the race. Trump has the juice, in other words, and it’s hard to see how he loses it…

Which is to say that, for the establishment, this debate changed nothing. The status quo is where it was on Wednesday. Trump is still the front-runner. And judging from his dominance in the debate, he might even expand his lead. Cruz is still the next most likely choice, and if he loses support, the beneficiary isn’t Rubio—it’s Trump. It didn’t have to be this way—there was a point where mainstream Republican voices could have stopped Trump with money and effort—but now it’s too late.

Now, instead of brushing Trump aside, Republican elites are learning to love the Donald and accept him as a potential nominee, or at least a candidate they can work with. Put differently, Republicans are beginning to prepare for a world where Donald Trump, celebrity nativist, is their leader.

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Trump and his supporters like to talk in sweeping and apocalyptic terms, and I’ve no inclination to do the same. The United States does not face any “existential” threats, there will be no Norman landing, no Mongol invasion. But it would be naïve to dismiss as bigotry or anxiety what so many voters feel deeply — that the country is in the middle of a profound and perhaps negative transformation. At some point, our debts do become unpayable. At some point, immigration does alter the traditional suite of American virtues. At some point, the terrorists do threaten our security. And consider: If the Islamic State were to conduct a major attack on American soil during a Hillary Clinton presidency, would the electorate turn to Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio? Or would the ranks of Trump-style partisans swell, and 2020 end up as a race dominated by a candidate who is not a buffoon but a nasty demagogue in a much older European mold?

If Trump is where Republican primary voters choose to go, the best thing for the country might be not to defeat him, but to push him into office and temper him there…

If Trump wants to win, he will have to balance his ticket, at least a bit — Rush Limbaugh is not a viable vice-presidential pick. A President Trump would probably have to select his Cabinet from among Republican officeholders, and they would still have to be confirmed by the Senate. Every member of Congress would be far more jealous of his constitutional authority under a Trump administration. Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid have refused to impede the usurpations of authority by a president from their own party, but Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell wouldn’t. Likewise, the massive complex of Washington bureaucrats, which raced to carry out President Obama’s tasks, would surely drag (if not dig in) its heels. And Republican governors, too — reliable conservatives such as Scott Walker, Nikki Haley, and Mike Pence — would not bend to Trump simply because of his party affiliation…

I do not want Donald Trump to become president. His election would be bad for conservatism, for the Republican party, and for the country. But we do not know the contours of a Trump presidency; they may still be able to be shaped by more sober minds. We know well, though, the likely contours of a Clinton presidency — and there is reason to think that it would prove worse. Weighed against Hillary Clinton now, and against the demagogues who could arise if things continue down the current path, Republicans’ best course might be to support Donald Trump.

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