Look beyond ‘The Donald’

Republican presidential candidate, businessman Donald Trump, left, and Jeb Bush slap hands near the finish of the CNN Republican presidential debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum on Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2015, in Simi Valley, Calif. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Political front-runners attract the spotlight. Their draw is particularly powerful when the front-runner is a relentless publicity seeker like Donald Trump. After all, the billionaire braggart was a self-promoting showman long before running for president.

So it was predictable that “The Donald” would again be a primary focus during and after the second “top tier” Republican presidential debate Wednesday night.

It also was no surprise that Mr. Trump would back away from a disparaging assessment he made, in a Rolling Stone interview released last week, about the appearance of another political outsider who’s been doing well in GOP polls.

In that issue, he rudely, though typically, said of Carly Fiorina: “Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that?”

But in the main-event debate at the Ronald Reagan Library in Simi Valley, Calif., Mr. Trump said: “I think she’s got a beautiful face, and I think she’s a beautiful woman.”

Mr. Trump did later point out that Mrs. Fiorina was fired from her job as CEO of Hewlett- Packard, adding: “She can’t run any of my companies. That I can tell you.”

Mrs. Fiorina fairly countered: “You ran up mountains of debt, as well as losses, using other people’s money, and you were forced to file for bankruptcy not once, not twice, four times.”

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie rightly interjected this reminder of more pressing priorities: “While I’m as entertained as anyone by this personal back-and-forth about the history of Donald and Carly’s career, for the 55-year-old construction worker out in that audience tonight who doesn’t have a job, who can’t fund his child’s education — I gotta tell you the truth — they could care less about your careers.”

Wednesday night’s debates — both of the “top tier” and earlier “bottom tier” — did include considerable substantive discussion and disagreement on crucial issues.

Yes, the main event, with 11 candidates debating for more than three hours, required a considerable viewer commitment — especially if you first watched Wednesday’s two-hour debate featuring the four “undercard” candidates at the same site.

Yet those who watched that opener witnessed a strong outing from Lindsey Graham. As CNN reported on its website: “After a flat performance in August at the first GOP debate, the South Carolina senator lit up the crowd ... dropping zingers that brought roars of approval.”

Perhaps the best line from Graham: “Whether you’re the wedding cake baker or the gay couple or the Baptist preacher, radical Islam would kill you all if they could. Let’s don’t lose sight of the big picture here.”

OK, so our senior senator appears to have scant chance of winning the S.C. primary, much less the GOP nomination and the presidency. Before writing any candidates off, though, keep in mind that it’s still just September of 2015 in the 2016 presidential race — and that the more we learn about all of the candidates, the less likely we are to make an ill-informed choice.

So check out the White House hopefuls. The Republicans have nine more debates scheduled for a total of 11. The Democrats have set only six debates — the first on Oct. 13 in Las Vegas and the fourth right here in Charleston on Jan. 17.

Politico reported Wednesday that rising Democratic frustration over the scarcity of debates “is spelling trouble for Hillary Clinton, the faltering front-runner who can’t afford to look like she’s being protected by party insiders.”

The Clinton camp probably prefers to limit debate with this potential, though unannounced, rival for the nomination: Vice President Joe Biden, who did quite well in his 2012 debate with Republican VP nominee Paul Ryan.

Meanwhile, though, voters who want to make an informed choice for our next president shouldn’t limit that task to either party’s field — or to dwelling on “The Donald.”