GOP Debate Verdict: Absent Trump the runaway winner

A conspiracy theorist might think the row between Fox News and Donald Trump had been manufactured. It ensured that, during a crucial window in which Iowa voters traditionally take a closer look at all the candidates, the entire media focus was on a celebrity and trivia, rather than policy.

It also ensured a debate in which every one of his rivals was scrutinised like never before, and repeatedly attacked one another. The two men most likely to challenge Trump were confronted with cringeworthy video footage, which made them look like typically opportunistic politicians.

Frank Luntz’s focus group – an essential guide, with a long history of predicting winners in UK politics – scored Marco Rubio the clear winner, with Ted Cruz again faring well. I didn’t see it that way and felt two men with no chance of being the candidate – Rand Paul and Chris Christie – fared best.

That must amount to another win for Trump. He has more embarrassing video footage – advocating politicians and policies that are toxic to the average GOP primary voter – than the rest combined. Maybe it will reach a wider audience later in the race, but he’s dodged a potentially lethal bullet just days before the pivotal Iowa Caucus. Meanwhile his rival Cruz performed at best ordinarily and can only have emerged from the debate weaker.

That doesn’t mean the race for Iowa is over. Cruz still has a superb ground game, and doubts persist over whether Trump’s voters will turnout. His failure to appear is unlikely to help that particular cause. When he withdrew from the debate, I laid Trump at 1.6. He’s drifted a little, so I’ll take a tiny profit by cashing out at 1.67.

Nevertheless, the master media strategist seems to have won again, and his national front-runner status looks stronger than ever. While proper politicians did the conventional thing – argued and defended policy in front of the voters – Trump fought his little war on Twitter with his followers’ favourite bogeyman. The mainstream media.

In return this so-called foe – that cannot help but hang upon his every word – helped his cause by giving his rivals the guns to shoot one another on live TV. It isn’t a conspiracy. Its a genius media strategist who may know nothing about policy or political consistency, but who understands how the game has changed in the social media age. In four years time, the mainstream GOP may have caught up, but for now Trump looks like leaving the rest of the field for dead.

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