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Why Trump's rivals barely even bothered to attack him at the debate

GEOFF ROBINS/AFP/Getty

Tonight's debate may have been the last chance to stop Donald Trump from running away with the GOP nomination.

But his opponents didn't even really seem to try.

In contrast to recent debates that have been raucous, nasty, and bitter, all four candidates — including Trump — came off as subdued. They were all trying to appear even-tempered, adult, and presidential.

For any regular viewer of these fireworks-filled contests, it was an odd departure. Even Trump himself pointed out how different it felt — about half an hour in, he remarked, "I cannot believe how civil it's been up here."

Each candidate has learned to be hesitant about picking a fight with Trump

From the perspective of Trump's rivals, this sudden reticence to attack the billionaire does make a certain amount of sense. Months ago, when Trump first took the lead in the polls, there was genuine puzzlement that so few candidates seemed interested in actually attacking the frontrunner. Commentators and donors repeatedly agitated for someone, anyone, to take on Trump more directly.

But it turned out that the only strategy worse than not attacking Donald Trump was ... attacking Donald Trump. Because whoever tried to attack him got crushed when he ruthlessly hit back. It's like the saying about how you shouldn't wrestle a pig, because you just end up getting dirty, and the pig likes it.

  • When Jeb Bush tried to take on Trump, Trump repeatedly mocked him as a "low-energy" person and a pawn of donors. His campaign never managed to recover, and he eventually dropped out after failing to finish better than fourth place in any of the first three states.
  • When Cruz went hard after Trump, the billionaire repeatedly slammed him as a sleazy liar (an attack that Rubio and Ben Carson were thrilled to echo). Cruz ended up stumbling in the polls after Iowa, unable to top Trump or Rubio in South Carolina and Nevada.
  • And when at long last, Rubio tried to give his campaign a boost by attacking Trump, the billionaire was absolutely brutal in response, dubbing him "Little Marco" and sending his campaign into free fall.

Meanwhile, as Rubio has been pulled down into the dirt with Trump, Cruz and Kasich have deliberately remained above the fray — and seem to have benefited at the Florida senator's expense. On Tuesday, Rubio lost badly to Cruz and Trump in Idaho and Hawaii, and topped that by losing to Trump, Cruz, and Kasich in Mississippi and Michigan.

Trump's rivals tried to appear above the fray. But that made Trump look above the fray too.

Since Rubio's new strategy of attacking Trump had so obviously failed, he's made a course correction, ditching the juvenile references to Trump's endowment. At the debate, he made sure that when he disputed something Trump said, it was a matter of substance — Cuba policy, entitlement cuts, Israel.

That's all well and good ... except that the upshot was that no one was hitting Trump particularly hard, in the final debate before a set of primaries that could give him an effectively insurmountable delegate lead. Sure, Cruz hit Trump occasionally on donating to Democrats — but he didn't go for the jugular. And Kasich seems to be allergic to making any attacks at all.

Indeed, Rubio's attempt to look adult and above the fray also helped Trump looked adult and above the fray — which is exactly what Trump wanted to do. In fact, earlier this week he even said he hoped this week's event would be a "nicer, softer, lighter debate, I hope."

That's just what ended up happening. Trump didn't take the bait when he was attacked, and remained even-tempered — no name-calling or insults. Wavering undecided voters concerned about his temperament could well have liked what they saw.

And since Trump is clearly the leader right now — and since, if polls are right, he appears to be positioned for a huge delegate haul in the March 15 contests — that could work out great for him. It's not Trump but his rivals who truly needed to try something different tonight.

But rather than shake things up, they may have simply returned to the situation of last summer and early fall, when Trump went mostly unchallenged. And when that happened, Trump stayed right where he was — at the top of the polls.