Marco Rubio talks to Donald Trump during a commercial break in last night’s Republican debate at the Fox Theatre in Detroit. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

 

THE BIG IDEA:

The Republican Party does not look prepared to come out of the wilderness after eight years of Barack Obama.

That’s the takeaway of many leading conservatives after last night’s 11th Republican debate.

Just when you probably thought the presidential nominating contest had hit rock bottom, Donald Trump joked about the size of his genitalia.

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The two-hour shout-down in Detroit, ahead of Michigan’s primary next Tuesday, suggested that the GOP’s deep wounds will not heal any time soon and raised the odds that Hillary Clinton will wind up president this time next year.

“The spectacle made me ill,” writes the conservative Free Beacon’s Matthew Continetti. “On screen I watched decades of work by conservative institutions, activists, and elected officials being lit aflame not only by the New York demagogue but by his enablers who waited until the last possible moment to try and stop him.”

I’ll explain further down why Ted Cruz and John Kasich probably won the Fox News debate on points, and Marco Rubio came out worse for wear, but it’s myopic to think about last night in those terms. Because, in reality, everyone lost.

“Designed to define candidates’ differences, the debates have become tedious and repetitious rather than enlightening or illuminating,” The Post’s chief correspondent, Dan Balz, writes. “No new information was imparted, no truly new arguments advanced. Even the insults have grown tiresome. … Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, who drew criticism earlier for trying to limit the number of debates, must be wishing he had pushed for even fewer, given the tone and tenor of Thursday’s forum and last week’s mud bath in Houston.” That’s not to mention the debate before that in South Carolina…

— The messaging guru most looked to by Republicans called Hillary the biggest winner of the debate:

From a senior adviser to Rick Perry:

From one of the GOP’s top pollsters:

From an up-and-coming Republican pollster who specializes in understanding millenials:

From a senior political reporter at National Review:

From the conservative on the New York Times opinion page:

Though Cruz, Rubio and Kasich said they’ll support Trump if he’s the nominee, there were a lot of posts like this on social media (in this case, from a Rubio supporter):

This was the most retweeted tweet during the two-hour debate:

— Here’s a sampling of how conservative media outlets are covering the debate:

  • National Review: “GOP Implosion Accelerates in Motor City Wreck.”
  • FoxNews.com, “GOP breaks down in Motor City”: “Much of the fight on the Republican side is centered on who can beat Clinton,” Chris Stirewalt, the digital politics editor, writes. “The growing fear among GOP voters is that the answer might be: ‘None of them.’”
  • Christian Broadcasting Network, “All That Was Missing Was Jerry Springer”: “The Grand Old Party didn’t look grand at all. Instead, they looked gross,” writes CBN political correspondent David Brody. “Reince Priebus is faced with a crucial decision now: does he go with Tylenol or Excedrin? Which medication will take away this big fat headache?”

— The level of discourse slipped to a vulgar new low with Trump’s braggadocio about being well endowed. “I guarantee you there’s no problem,” he said in a quote for the ages.

No surprise, this was the most buzzed about moment on Facebook and drove the conversation on Twitter. It is also the moment that will utterly dominate the cable conversation today. Here’s a taste of the reaction: 

The Daily Beast’s home page:

And Trump still wouldn’t stop talking about his hands after the debate when he went into the spin room:

— Indeed, it was another debate all about Trump.

But time of possession does not fully reflect how much of their time Cruz and Rubio spent talking about Trump.

Girth jokes aside, Trump lost badly on points – though, of course, it may not dissuade any of his supporters.

Trump hoped to look presidential and ready for a general election. He did not.

He acknowledged that he often changes his positions on issues but spun this attribute as a tribute to his “flexibility.”

He flip-flopped, and then flipped again after the debate ended, on H-1-B visas.

He sounded like he said something to the New York Times editorial board about immigration that he doesn’t want to be made public. This scared many on the right who are otherwise sympathetic:

He also could not offer a coherent or persuasive defense about Trump University, saying the issue won’t be settled for a few more years. “Trump became flustered as he tried to defend what has been one of his greatest assets: his business record,” writes The Weekly Standard’s Michael Warren. “As the aphorism goes, if you’re explaining, you’re losing, especially when what you’re explaining a massive civil suit against your company that claims you defrauded thousands of people for millions of dollars.”

Moderators Bret Baier, Megyn Kelly and Chris Wallace take the stage at Fox Theatre last night. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

— To their credit, the moderators pressed Trump harder and more effectively than the other candidates did. You could understand why The Donald skipped the Fox News debate before Iowa! They put up facts and figures that show just how unrealistic much of what he promises is. They showed video clips of him saying three things and then insisting adamantly – in one case, the next day – that he never said them. Megyn Kelly quoted a federal court ruling that said Trump acted like a “con artist” and compared his victims to those of Bernie Madoff.

Kelly especially received high praise from across the ideological spectrum:

Other storylines:

— Cruz and Rubio did not attack each other. The Cuban American Non-Aggression Pact held. USA Today leads with the tag-team element: “For the first time in a debate, they created a united anti-Trump front. In response, Trump brushed them off, sneeringly calling them ‘little Marco’ and ‘lying Ted.’”

— Five key conservative talking heads declared that Cruz had the best night of anyone:

(AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

“Cruz had a terrific night,” writes National Review executive editor Rich Lowry. “He was strong and in command in his exchanges with Trump, and drew blood on Trump’s Hillary donations and the New York Times transcript. He avoided getting dragged down into the mud with Trump in the same way Rubio did. In general, he was firing on all cylinders, and his answer on Detroit was particularly good.”

— There’s near consensus that Rubio diminished himself.

(AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

“The Florida senator seemed to have resigned himself to a kamikaze mission against Trump during this debate,” writes The Fix’s Chris Cillizza, who puts him on his list of losers. “He jabbed at and with Trump over and over again in the debate’s first 60 minutes, turning every question — and answer — into an attack on Trump. It hurt Trump but hurt Rubio, too, as he struggled to get back to his more positive ‘new American century’ message. Rubio improved in the second half of the debate, but Cruz was better throughout. It’s hard to see how this debate changes the dynamic set in place on Tuesday night: Trump as the favorite, Cruz with the next best chance of being the nominee, Rubio as Trump spoiler.”

— By trying to stay above the fray, Kasich probably helped inject himself back into the debate and improved his chances of winning his home state of Ohio on March 15. In that 25-person focus group run by Luntz, 18 picked Kasich as the winner. Six picked Cruz, one picked Trump and none picked Rubio.

(AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

This total mentions chart from our analytics partners at Zignal Labs, which shows media mentions between 9 p.m. to midnight Eastern, indicates Kasich may have had a bit of a breakthrough during tonight’s debate:

Kasich gave a solid performance of strength, sense, charm, and gravitas that was further elevated when contrasted with the three heated squabblers on stage beside him,” writes Bloomberg’s Mark Halperin. “Some rousing moments recounting his campaign trail and Ohio experiences that will potentially leave a lingering positive impression with Main Street Republican voters.”

From a USA Today political reporter:

This is George Costanza from Seinfeld:

— But, but, but: Kasich would still rather watch his party combust than directly engage Trump. Shown a web video that his own campaign released mocking the front-runner for praising Vladimir Putin, the governor of Ohio refused to comment about it. “I’m not biting,” he said. That sounded like a consummate and calculating politician, not a statesman staying above the fray. Now is a gut-check moment for leadership, not dodges.

— The Post’s Fact Checkers flag 14 fishy claims made during the debate. From Glenn Kessler and Michelle Ye Hee Lee:

  • Trump seriously overstates the case when he claims the United States is getting “absolutely crushed” in trade with “every other country.”
  • Cruz continues to say that Trump financed the Gang of Eight. But this is misleading. The majority of Trump’s donations was made long before the 2013 Gang of Eight’s support for comprehensive immigration reform.
  • Rubio dropped his estimate of Trump’s inheritance from $200 million to $100 million, but that’s probably still too high. Trump and his siblings were reported to have expected $35 million each before Trump’s father died. But, as we have explained, Trump’s claim that he inherited $1 million and turned it into $10 billion is also false.
  • What could account for Trump’s strange notion that the 9/11 hijackers were married and shipped their wives home just before the attacks? Perhaps he is conflating reports of Saudi nationals leaving the United States after the attacks. But even so, it would have made little sense for such a carefully planned plot to have such poor operational security.
  • Cruz is exaggerating his law-enforcement credentials.
  • Trump University actually earned a D- from BBB before it was shut down.

— Read an annotated transcript of the debate here.