Third GOP debate ushers in the new Trump

Trump After the Debate
Trump After the Debate

From April to August, Donald Trump dominated the Republican presidential landscape, a phenomenal, seemingly bulletproof, 800-pound gorilla of a candidate with a double-digit lead in the polls -- and so much momentum that pundits dubbed it the Summer of Trump.

After the third GOP primary debate Wednesday night, though, it looks like winter is coming.

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In his first prime-time appearance since yielding front-runner status to Dr. Ben Carson, there were questions about what Trump would do to regain first place. Analysts wondered whether the populist billionaire would bring his long-running feud with Carson to the CNBC stage, or whether he'd try to elbow past Carson by resurrecting his rogue Trumpel-stiltskin personality: mix it up with the moderators, hurl insults at his opponents and brag a lot about his own accomplishments.

Ultimately, however, The Donald went establishment: He largely behaved himself and didn't hog the spotlight. And unlike the attempts to gang-tackle him in the Cleveland and Reagan Library debates, this time the rest of the field -- including Carson and archrival Jeb Bush -- pretty much left him alone.

"I toned it down," Trump said in a CNBC post-debate interview, adding that his opponents "did great."

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But that likely means Trump won't dominate the morning-after headlines Thursday -- and probably didn't do enough on the University of Colorado stage to reverse his slide in the polls, something that's puzzled him for the last two days.

"I don't get it," Trump said Tuesday on MSNBC's "Morning Joe," the day a slew of polls showed him running behind Carson in Iowa and nationally. "I'm going there [to Iowa] actually today and I have tremendous crowds and I have tremendous love in the room, and you know, we seem to have hit a chord. But some of these polls coming out, I don't quite get it."

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The reversal of fortune to Carson's benefit probably was even harder for Trump to stomach. As Carson gained on him the last few weeks, Trump and the retired neurosurgeon got a little personal, jabbing each other on issues ranging from religious devotion to abortion.

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At the same time, however, there were signs Trump's ability to defy political gravity -- maintaining a strong lead despite mean-spirited barbs, opposition attacks, declaring he'd make America great again without specifically saying how -- were wearing thin, and armchair advisors (and probably a few professionals) suggested he downsize his larger-than-life personality. As Trump went mainstream and avoided throwing rhetorical bombs, his lead, which had been as high as 25 points, faded and Carson overtook him Monday.

%shareLinks-quote="Goodbye, Trumpel-stiltskin, hello The New Trump." type="spreadWord"%

The dramatic shift in polling, and Trump's self-policing, set the stage for Wednesday's CNBC debate on the economy, arguably one of his strong suits. And there were flashes of his free-wheeling style during the two-hour event.

Trump objected when asked whether his is a "comic book version" of a presidential campaign, bristled at moderator John Harwood's suggestion that his tax plan was as realistic as his ability to flap his arms and fly ("Then you better get rid of [CNBC host] Larry Kudlow -- he loves my plan," Trump shot back), boasted that "I came out great" after his Atlantic City casinos filed for bankruptcy and said reconciliation is his biggest weakness ("I find it very, very hard to forgive people who deceive me.")

He also mixed it up early with Ohio Gov. John Kasich when Kasich -- whose polling numbers reflect his current also-ran status -- continued his attack on him and Carson for making campaign promises a president can't realistically keep.

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Trump's tax plan "is the fantasy that I talked about in the beginning," Kasich argued. "You can't [lead the country] with empty promises. These plans would put us in trillions and trillions of dollars of debt ... This stuff is fantasy, just like [Carson] getting rid of Medicare and Medicaid."

Instead of rebutting the allegation with specifics, Trump turned his rhetorical flamethrower on Kasich's financial record in the Buckeye State, and on Wall Street at a firm that helped trigger the 2008 financial meltdown.

"John got lucky with a thing called 'fracking,' He got lucky, and that's why Ohio is doing well," Trump said. And he pointed out that Kasich was a Lehman Brothers honcho "when it went down the tubes and almost took every one of us with it -- including Ben [Carson] and myself. He was on the board and was a managing general partner."

Kasich denied the allegation, but Trump didn't retract.

But that was about it for the fireworks from The Donald, and he spent the rest of the evening patiently waiting his turn to speak. Unlike the Cleveland debate where most of his responses drew several rounds of applause, Trump only had a handful of applause lines, and nothing that would make for a snappy, attention-grabbing headline.

And he largely stuck to the policy script -- for tax cuts, against government regulation and in favor of making America a winner again in the international arena. He confirmed he owns a gun, but doesn't always carry it because "I like to be unpredictable."

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On immigration -- his signature issue, and one of his most controversial -- Trump was more establishment than rogue, doubling down on his plan to build a giant wall between the U.S. and Mexico but insisting he has a "great relationship" and nothing but love for most Mexicans.

Trump even showed restraint when his opponents went after the media, particularly after Sen. Marco Rubio described the industry as Democrats' super PAC.

Though he made headlines tangling with Fox News' Megyn Kelly in the Cleveland debate, Trump only major criticism about Wednesday night's moderators was when he said Becky Sharp' was wrong about his having he criticized Rubio and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg for their views on immigration. When she asked where she read his rebuke of the Facebook founder, he quipped: "I don't know -- you people write this stuff."

After a commercial break, Sharp said she got the quote from Trump's own website.

Perhaps the best example of The New Trump was in his closing statement, when he told moderators that his and Carson's campaign negotiated with CNBC to cut the debate from three hours to two, or they wouldn't participate.

The goal, Trump said, was to get the debate over with "So we can get the hell out of here."

Copyright 2015 U.S. News & World Report

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