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.