After last night’s debate disaster in front of 13-16 million people (by early estimates the highest-rated debate of the five since the start of the new year), Donald Trump must be looking with horror at the prospect of three more debates in the next month, two of them before the big Florida/Ohio/North Carolina/Illinois/Missouri showdown on March 15. And unlike, say, his tangles with Jeb Bush, he has no prospect of escaping a repeat by candidates dropping out; at least one of Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, if not both, will be in the race through at least the first two of those debates no matter what happens on Super Tuesday.
Trump’s only viable strategy right now is to run out the clock, and that’s what his flacks and courtiers are out doing on Twitter this morning, declaring that hey, the election is over, the polls show he’s way ahead, so the voters may as well give up and debates don’t matter. He can try changing the subject – see today’s Chris Christie hug – but that only buys him respites from the pain of being humiliated and shown to be out of his depth by smart, aggressive lawyers who have acquired a taste for his blood.
Which raises the question of whether Trump will just run away and avoid any further debates. It’s a classic “Rose Garden strategy” campaign frontrunners have used in the past. It carries major risks as well: Trump would effectively have to implicitly admit that he’s afraid to stand toe to toe with Rubio or Cruz again, and that did not help his ‘alpha dog’ image when he tried it in Iowa. But compared to the potential for being exposed again the way he was last night, it may be the smaller risk.