There were two Republican debates on Saturday night, just as there are two Republican nomination battles right now.
One of them is the reality TV show, starring Donald Trump. That one is amazingly entertaining, although it has less to do with how to govern the nation than “The Bachelor” has to do with real love and romance. Trump lies: No one talked about immigration as a problem until he ran for president! He spoke up against the Iraq war before it started! He insults his opponents. He insults debate audiences. He interrupts. He makes faces. And sometimes the other candidates strike back, often on about the same level.
On Saturday night, Trump decided to sharply criticize George W. Bush (who remains quite popular among Republican voters) over both Iraq and the Sept. 11 attacks. Will it matter? Who knows? Nothing else so far has — for that third who want to vote for him, at least.
And then there are the regular candidates. It isn’t as if they are all that edifying either. Their lies are politician lies, not the specials that Trump serves up. Marco Rubio, for example, wants everyone to believe that he and Ted Cruz have similar records on immigration, something that isn’t even close to being true. Cruz, for his part, pretends that Obamacare has cost millions of jobs. But the candidates do at least sort of debate public policy.
The Republicans’ reality show constantly threatens to swallow the normal nomination fight. Maybe it will. I still don’t believe so: As far as I can tell, Republicans have had plenty of opportunity to decide whether they want to make a mockery of their party, and about two-thirds of them, give or take some, are more sensible than that, according to the voting so far and to polls. If that’s the case, then what we care about is which of the other candidates will survive to beat him one on one.
Saturday night may have offered some clues. Marco Rubio bounced back after his disaster in New Hampshire and had his usual solid performance. If anyone was worried he couldn’t handle competing at this level, the South Carolina debate should have alleviated that concern. John Kasich tried to build on his second-place effort in New Hampshire by chastising everyone for negative campaigning. That is easy for him to promise because he has little money for campaigning and, in expanding Medicaid in Ohio, he is an easy target for other candidates. Ted Cruz fought with Rubio and Trump; Jeb Bush fought repeatedly with Trump, a strategy that hasn’t worked out well for anyone in the past, but perhaps this will change with a smaller Republican field.
Rubio won the room, presumably by packing it with the most enthusiastic supporters. He was consistently interrupted by applause, while Jeb Bush’s fans sometimes seemed to be noticing a beat too slow that he had finished speaking before they realized they were supposed to clap. Or maybe it was just about microphone placement.
Of course this sort of thing rarely makes a difference, except that South Carolina voters (outside of the Trump supporters) are presumably looking for some reason to choose among fairly similar candidates. Choosing the one who appears to have the best chance of beating Trump isn’t irrational at all. Nor is it irrational for moderates and moderate conservatives to look for the candidate with the best chance to beat Cruz. For very conservative voters, beating Kasich (and perhaps Bush too) might be important. In that context, any signs of life from Rubio might matter.
All of this assumes voters will notice the regular campaign. It will be fascinating to see which debate clips play on South Carolina TV news, and on national and South Carolina conservative talk radio. If it’s the reality show, that’s bad news for everybody else.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist
covering U.S. politics. A political scientist, he previously wrote “A Plain Blog About Politics