The only noteworthy aspect of the otherwise meaningless Donald Trump spurt in the public-opinion polls is that if it holds up, it will buy him a ticket into the first of the Republican debates in Cleveland early next month.
Currently Mr. Trump is running second to Jeb Bush or Scott Walker in the most prominent if equally meaningless early surveys of support for the many aspirants for the GOP presidential nomination. Under national party rules, only the top 10 are to be invited to the sanctioned debates in the early caucus and primary states.
Given his tactlessness and glaring lack of presidential qualifications, Mr. Trump's participation would guarantee fireworks and turn the debates into a circus. The big loser predictably would be the image of the Party of Lincoln.
The recent entry into the Democratic sweepstakes by former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb, a onetime Republican and decorated Vietnam War veteran, could also breathe both heat and light into the debates in the Party of Jefferson.
Mr. Webb as an early and outspoken dissenter from the 2003 invasion ofIraq, is well-positioned to hold Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton to account for her most glaring break with party liberals. That would be her vote as a senator who authorized use of force to oust Saddam Hussein, which she now regrets.
That case is already being made against her by Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont. But Mr. Webb's credentials as combat Marine with a harder edge than Mr. Sanders presents on the stump offers the prospect for a livelier debate challenge to the former first lady and Obama secretary of state. With Webb only the fifth Democrat in the race, his participation in those debates is assured.
Neither of the other two Democratic contenders for the White House, former Govs. Martin O'Malley of Maryland and Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, threatens to emulate Mr. Trump as a bull in the china shop in the Democratic debates. Consequently, it's highly unlikely their verbal exchanges in the early caucus and primary states will descend into the chaos and buffoonery that the New York real estate mogul promises to bring to the Republican free-for-alls.
Although nothing Mr. Trump says should be surprising, his remarks the other day in a CNN interview outdid himself both in bigotry and lack of political calculation. At a time when the party hopes to mend its image among Latino voters, Mr. Trump's observation that Mexicans and others crossing the southern border are committing rape and other crimes at a "mind-boggling" rate was itself mind-boggling.
Yet leading lights of the GOP have been remarkably benign in combatting Mr. Trump's hijacking of the 2016 presidential race and the party's image. Republican National Chairman Reince Priebus has guardedly ventured to say that Trump's comments are "not helpful." Former Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, a rival candidate, said: "I don't think Donald Trump's remarks reflect the Republican Party."
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, another rival, said "candidates will be held countable by the voters for what they say," and went on as a Cuban-American to extol the virtues of Latino immigrants like his naturalized parents.
But in televised debate, will Trump's rivals let it go at that, especially with New York's most prominent loudmouth doing his best to hog the spotlight and upset the apple cart? Originally they were saying the more, the merrier in the race, but no longer.
On the Democratic side, Mr. Trump is being seen as in Monopoly terms -- a bank error in their favor -- as he wreaks havoc on customary GOP decorum. Meanwhile, the smaller, manageable field of four challengers to Hillary Clinton, all responsible current or former office-holders, prepare for more sedate and substantive tilting with her in the Democratic debates to come.
Still, one never knows what will happen in either party in these televised pressure cookers. For all the meticulous preparations, spontaneity has often produced the unexpected. With or without a loose cannon like The Donald, the candidate debates will be reality shows of a more genuine manner than the ones Mr. Trump has starred in the past.
Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.