Nine candidates and Donald Trump

It can be humbling to watch post-debate analyses.

People you respect appear on screen and tell you that what you just saw is all wrong. It can make you feel like an idiot after watching a two-hour debate, or convince you that everyone else is dumb, which is a tougher proposition to internalize.

At least for me.

I was relieved, then, following Thursday’s Republican prime-time debate in Cleveland, to hear near-universal opprobrium for Donald Trump’s performance. I’m no Trump fan — I even find his buildings gaudy — but I tried to maintain something of an objective eye while watching the fireworks in Cleveland.

What I and others saw Thursday were nine presidential candidates and Donald Trump. Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon with zero political experience, managed to earn his podium on the stage with clever comments and a fair command of the issues. Trump didn’t even seem to try. He looked like a caricature of himself up there, more Jabba the Hutt from “Star Wars” in disposition than anything approximating a presidential contender.

That’s been his appeal to Americans sick of spit-polished political pros with lapel flag pins, but Trump’s demeanor and unpreparedness — he could answer nothing in detail — seemed inappropriate for a presidential debate stage, insulting even, at least to this American.

He mildly threatened Fox News moderator Megyn Kelly when she pushed him about rude comments he has made about women over the years, and he cited anonymous border patrol agents as the source for his claims that the Mexican government is emptying prisons into America. It was painful to watch in a field of 10 in which questioning has to move on quickly to other candidates. Just imagine what Trump might say in a two-hour, one-on-one debate.

Trump did manage to win the post-debate Drudge Report online survey, but that’s always been a protest forum. Former Texas Rep. Ron Paul used to win it, too. But no serious analyst has had anything uplifting to say about Trump’s performance. That doesn’t mean he’s going away immediately, but it should mean that his ascent in the polls and stranglehold on news coverage are coming to an end.

I was also relieved to see wide praise for businesswoman Carly Fiorina’s performance in the undercard debate at 5 p.m. Fiorina has been making strong inroads in conservative circles, but it hasn’t yet shown up in polls. Trump has almost certainly been a factor in that. Not only is he the other outsider business candidate, but his celebrity status has frozen much of the field in place by depriving it of the free media candidates need to break out. That should change, which is good news for all the other hopefuls.

Republicans depressed about the state of the presidential race should feel a lot better after Thursday. The candidates did exactly what they were supposed to do. And so did Donald Trump.

William F. B. O’Reilly is a Republican consultant.