Last night’s Republican debate is likely to be remembered as the first time the Republican establishment finally launched a coordinated attack on Donald Trump, the billionaire businessman who has been dominating the party’s primary with charisma and a contempt for traditional politics that has outweighed his lack of political experience and questionable conservative credentials.
But for many observers, last night’s attacks from other prominent GOP candidates – Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas – may be a matter of too little, too late.
While his Republican opponents may now be willing to exploit Mr. Trump’s weaknesses, his commitment to playing the 2016 election by his own rules – exhibited most recently in a refusal to release his tax returns – could still be enough to secure him the presidential nomination. Actually becoming the Republican nominee, however, could force him to change his tactics.
In other words, don't be surprised if the Trump Republicans have seen isn't quite the Trump general election voters get.
Republicans have criticized him throughout the primary – and during last night’s debate – for supporting many liberal policies, including government-mandated health care, tax hikes, and Planned Parenthood. He has also changed his policy positions several times since announcing his candidacy in June, including on issues such as tax reform and fighting the Islamic State.
“He has changed his positions on a number of things coming into this election, so why would we expect him to not consider moving around if it suited him going into the general election?” says Geoffrey Skelley of the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
“I think it’s a mistake to underestimate his political intelligence,” he adds. “If he feels he has to do that to have a better shot at winning, he’ll do it.”
Most obviously, Trump could soften some of his more conservative policy positions to appeal to moderate general election voters, Mr. Skelley says.
In the short-term, he is unlikely to do so. As long as the nomination is up for grabs, he will have to defend against the kinds of taunts and attacks brought by Senators Cruz and Rubio Thursday. He’s done that most effectively by adopting the role of a rebellious upstart fighting for the struggling everyday American.
Rubio struck early Thursday night with attacks on Trump’s business record, including allegations of hiring foreign workers ahead of Americans and defrauding students at a university bearing his name. Cruz latched onto Trump’s past support for liberal causes, and mocked his celebrity, saying that while he was fighting immigration reform in Congress, Trump “was firing Dennis Rodman on Celebrity Apprentice.”
Trump gave as good as he got, but responded mostly with personal attacks than specific political critiques, calling Rubio a “choke artist” and Cruz a “liar” and a “basket case.” He also deflected calls from his opponents and moderators to release his tax returns – a call issued earlier this week by 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney, who said there could be a “bombshell” in the returns – saying he is currently being audited and can’t release them.
He may not have to hold out for long. He has already won three of the four GOP nominating contests, polls have him leading in three-quarters of the states that will hold primaries and caucuses on “Super Tuesday” March 1, and The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza writes that he could wrap up the nomination by mid-March.
“Trump is not yet inevitable but he’s on a very strong path, and if [the GOP establishment] don’t figure this out in the next 13 days, Trump is going to be the presidential nominee,” says Ford O’Connell, a Republican strategist.
If he wins the nomination before releasing his tax returns, he’d be one of the first candidates to do so since the 1970s, according to Joseph Thorndike, director of the Tax History Project at Tax Analysts.
“This isn’t something that popped up in last few years and is easy to dispense with. This is something candidates do,” he adds. “At the end of the day the real issue here is about transparency and openness.... It’s about more than tax returns. It’s a willingness to be transparent that matters.”
But if Trump is able to win the nomination regardless of the tax returns and other controversies, observers expect Trump to paradoxically gain the united support of Republicans even as he may adopt more centrist policy positions.
“Once he becomes nominee the [Republican] attacks are going to stop,” says Mr. O’Connell. “One thing he wants to do that [establishment] Republicans want is have a Republican win the White House.”
He adds: “Do I think he’s going to change some tactics and positions to win the general election? Yes.”
And changing some policy positions may not even turn off his supporters that much, experts say. Trump’s campaign has always been more personality-driven than policy-driven, so if specific policies change it may not matter, so long as it’s him delivering them.
“Trump is not winning because he’s selling an ideology, he’s winning because he’s selling a vision,” says O’Connell.