On the day Mitt Romney called Donald Trump a con man, a fraud and a phony, and Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz subsequently ran Mr. Trump through a televised debate buzz saw, the Republican Party may have hit a new low in self-disparagement.
Its 2012 presidential nominee first provided the Fox News debate team all the raw material required to keep Mr. Trump on the defensive for two hours. Then the debaters did the rest, as Mr. Rubio joined Mr. Trump in a display of gutter-speak over such matters as genitalia size and other matters better suited for locker-room chatter.
For once, attempts were made to draw out Mr. Trump on his unending boasts about his wealth and charity, raising doubts about both and generating flashes of anger and impatience from Mr. Trump. But once again, it was all about Donald as near-panic seized the party over the prospect of his nomination in July.
At one point, moderator Chris Wallace quoted verbatim from Mr. Romney's all-purpose indictment of Mr. Trump: "The bullying, the greed, the showing off, the misogyny, the absurd third-grade theatrics."
With the field of contenders finally narrowed to four — Messrs. Trump, Rubio, Cruz and Ohio Gov. John Kasich — only the latter again refrained from the mud-slinging and character assassination. Observing the ganging up on Mr. Trump around him, Mr. Kasich said at one point: "I have never tried to go and get into these scrums that we're seeing here on this stage. And people say everywhere I go, 'You seem to be the adult on the stage.' "
Mr. Kasich has earned that observation by sticking to selling his own record as a proven budget-cutter in Congress as part of President Ronald Reagan's economics team, and then as a governor who has balanced his state budgets each year in Ohio.
At the same time, he has softened the sharp edges he often displayed in Washington and has embraced the "compassionate conservatism" that George W. Bush claimed to champion early in his presidency.
Mr. Kasich stood by patiently for long intervals in the Detroit debate as Messrs. Rubio and Cruz hammered at Mr. Trump's business claims in their effort to keep their flagging prospects alive. Mr. Kasich is focusing on the Michigan primary tomorrow, hoping to garner Midwest support as a prelude to next week's primary in his home state. After that, he has said, he will bow out of the presidential race if he doesn't win there.
Asked along with the other candidates in the debate whether he would keep the pledge all of them have made to support the eventual nominee, he answered as follows: "When you're in the arena, you enter a special circle. And you want to respect the people you are in the arena with. So if he (Mr. Trump) winds 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."
That response was a rare display of tact in an otherwise evening of crude and vulgar alley cat brawling by the others that should have been an embarrassment to the Grand Old Party.
Earlier in the day, Mr. Romney himself had stepped out of character in labeling Mr. Trump "a con man" and the rest, but then Messrs. Rubio and Trump in the debate combined to lower the tone and quality of the discussion even more.
Informed at the outset that Mr. Romney had challenged him "to answer with substance not insults," Mr. Trump replied: "Well, look, he was a failed candidate. He should have beaten President Obama very easy. He failed miserably, and it was an embarrassment to everybody, including the Republican Party. ... I guess, obviously, he wants to be relevant. He wants to be back in the game."
Such is the state of serious contention in the GOP in its quest to find a 2016 standard-bearer capable of ending the Democratic control of the White House in November, and the unspeakable threat of the hated Hillary Clinton poised to bring back the Clinton Era, along with — even worse in Republican eyes — a liberal Supreme Court.
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.