Is Trump getting a little bored with it all?
One word describes CNBC's Republican primary debate: awkward.
The cable channel clearly intended it to be a roast of ten individual candidates, with questions ranging from "exactly how dumb are you?" to "list the ways in which you would ruin America if given the chance?" But as the interrogation got meaner and meaner, and the candidates started fighting back, CNBC suddenly found itself the focus of the debate. Its moderators discovered that there is one thing that conservatives distrust more than each other. The mainstream media.
It wasn't all CNBC's fault. The time it had allotted to the debate had been reduced after Donald Trump and Ben Carson threatened a boycott. The absurd number of candidates (ten is way too many) meant that the average length of time they got to speak was around seven minutes. And on top of all of this, all of them were competing to be the angriest person alive.
Anger is in right now. Anger at immigration, anger at big government, anger at taxes. John Kasich, the relatively moderate governor of Ohio, had set the tone before the debate by launching an attack on fantasy economics. That was a savvy way of letting CNBC know that he'd be happy to play the "mad as hell" guy for as long as they were prepared to give him air time. That's what he did.
This set off a chain reaction of angriness along the debate platform. The only people who didn't seem angry were Rand Paul (invited to speak so rarely that he started to sound like a mime artist) and neurosurgeon Ben Carson.
People are scratching their heads about Carson, wondering why a man who describes his tax plan as if thinking about it for the first time is ahead in some polls. The answer is that he's conservative but not furious about it. The novelty of his sanguine approach is winning him a legion of fans.
Meanwhile, Jeb Bush tried to go negative against Marco Rubio over a nothing-scandal about senate attendance and the attack horribly backfired. Thereafter, Bush faded into the background. He and Paul could've slipped out to get a coffee.
On Twitter, the Right was fuming at CNBC's negative questions - and they were very negative. But isn't that the job of the press? Especially when so many of the tax ideas being thrown around were so obviously flawed - and the cable channel deserves credit for accurately compelling Trump to defend his quotes or Carly Fiorina to defend her business record.
But something about the moderators' tone was harassing and contemptuous. Like it was a job interview and they'd invited a few idiots to apply just for fun.
So Senator Cruz judged the mood of the audience, saw the way things were going and said: "The questions that have been asked so far in this debate illustrate why the American people don't trust the media. This is not a cage match." The audience went wild. Twitter exploded. It was an incredibly smart move. In fact it could be the making of the Cruz candidacy.
At present there are two parallel races going on in the Republican Party. The first is for the leader of the radical grassroots. It's currently between Ben Carson, Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and Carly Fiorina. Carson and Trump have the numbers at the moment but they also have no experience of high office and a tendency to eat their own feet in public. Cruz, by contrast, has his senatorial title and a comparatively uncontroversial record. He's popular with both the Tea Party and the evangelical Right. So if Carson or Trump sink in the polls, Cruz is the most likely to benefit.
At the same time, there's also a contest for leader of the mainstream candidates. It used to be presumed that Jeb Bush was way out in front - but the CNBC debate performance illustrated his weaknesses. Coming up fast behind him is Marco Rubio. Rubio was probably the overall winner of the debate because he combined anti-media anger with a dash of charm, humour and positivity.
He certainly stood out in an evening punctuated by shouts and hand waving.
Oddly, however, it wasn't a night in which Donald Trump particularly shone. In fact he hardly spoke at all. Is he getting bored? I have wondered how long it would take for his mind to wander, which typically shows itself in silliness.
On this occasion he said that he'd be quite happy for his employees to carry guns in his workplaces. The thought of all those Las Vegas croupiers packing heat is quite terrifying.
The mindlessness of such a statement, with all its implications for social tension, goes to the heart of the nihilism in US politics. Everything is a conflict, everything is a cage fight. Points of commonality are downplayed; consensus is mistaken for cowardliness.
No wonder a growing body of people are attracted to Carson's shy smile. (© Daily Telegraph London)