Oddly enough, two of the most important and memorable moments from last night's Republican debate came at the beginning and the end. Early on, as we discussed this morning, Donald Trump defended himself from Marco Rubio's personal attacks by making an oblique reference to his genitals. It represented yet another new low in Republican politics.
But nearly two hours later, Fox News' Bret Baier asked literally the final question of the event: "It has been a long time since our first debate, seven months ago in Cleveland. A lot has transpired since then, obviously, including an RNC pledge that all of you signed agreeing to support the party's nominee and not to launch an independent run. Tonight, in 30 seconds, can you definitively say you will support the Republican nominee, even if that nominee is Donald J. Trump?" And then they answered:
Marco Rubio: "I'll support the Republican nominee. I'll support Donald if he's the Republican nominee."Ted Cruz: "Yes, because I gave my word that I would."John Kasich: "[If Trump] ends up as the nominee -- sometimes, he makes it a little bit hard -- but, you know, I will support whoever is the Republican nominee for president."
It was a striking moment. Rubio, Cruz, and to a lesser extent Kasich, had just spent the previous two hours -- indeed, much of the last several months -- making clear that they don't want to see Trump anywhere near the Oval Office.
In fact, the Republican frontrunner's rivals are in need of a thesaurus after nearly running out of attacks. We've been told that Trump's a "con man," a "fraud," and a "lunatic," who's "unqualified" and "unfit" to lead.
And yet, when push comes to shove, Trump has an "R" after his name -- and for the Republican presidential field, that's ultimately all that matters. If voting for the Republican nominee means making an actual "lunatic" the leader of the free world, according to the GOP's 2016 field, so be it.
NBC News' First Read crew explained this well: "They were stunning responses [at the end of the debate], because they undercut the furious #NeverTrump movement we've seen over the past week. If you're going to accuse Trump of being a con artist, a buffoon, or a threat to the country, how can you so easily say you'd support him as your party's presidential nominee?"
Exactly. For all the handwringing about Trump being a danger to the party, to the economy, to national security, and possibly to our democracy, the moment leading Republicans say, "I'm prepared to vote for him anyway," the implicit message to voters is unmistakable: "Trump isn't really that bad."
There's simply no way for voters to reconcile the mixed message. If Trump were as bad as his GOP critics say, they'd vow to oppose his candidacy at all costs. Instead, most of them, including each of the remaining Republican presidential candidates, are saying the opposite.
The entire #NeverTrump campaign was suddenly deflated by the very people who stood to benefit from it. The end-of-the-debate positions signaled to voters that the intensity of their attacks on the GOP frontrunner are little more than theater -- because they all stand ready to elect Trump anyway if it's his name on the ballot.
Postscript: The Rubio campaign, which is quite literally selling #NeverTrump kitsch on its website, tried to make the case in the spin room last night the senator's vow didn't really count because the question raised "a hypothetical" that Team Rubio believes "won't happen."
Just so we're clear, Rubio said during the debate, on camera, to a national audience, "I'll support Donald if he's the Republican nominee." There's simply no getting around that.