I wrote earlier that Donald Trump's real audience tonight was the press and other Republican politicians more than the voters. On this score, Trump probably emerged from the debate having preserved, but not necessarily improved, his current standing. The general media consensus seems to be that Trump, even if he did not "win" the debate outright, performed better than he had last time. He at least avoided any kind of immediately embarrassing gaffe or line-crossing in the eyes of the press that would be a candidate for constant TV replay and/or viral video status over the next week.
At the same time, the debate failed to produce a sufficiently memorable positive story for Trump that would be likely to divert attention for very long from his remarks on the Access Hollywood bus, which will probably continue to dominate media coverage and political chatter over the following days. Most debates, despite their extensive advance hype, tend to soon fade into history without pushing the race very far in either direction, and the emergence of other, more fascinating developments over the weekend may hasten this pattern in the present case.
We can probably conclude from Hillary Clinton's fairly unmemorable performance that her campaign wouldn't mind if people spend the next week talking about the Trump tape rather than the debate. Clinton was well-drilled as always, but she lacked some of the prefabricated attack lines that she had brought to the first event. Even her response to the subject of the tape was less impassioned than it could have been, which suggests that she has adopted the front-runner's traditional strategy of staying out of the way of the opposition as the clock runs down.
Van Jones of CNN advanced the theory that Trump's good-enough performance was actually the worst-case scenario for Republicans, because a total meltdown would have prompted them to dump Trump from the ticket and replace him with a stronger candidate. But Trump can't actually be dumped—people are already voting in some states—and the Republicans are stuck with him as their official nominee for the duration. Whether or not Republican leaders renounce him or deny his campaign the resources of the Republican National Committee will not be affected by his debate performance Sunday night, but rather will be determined by the fallout of the Access Hollywood tape—and the natural question of whether any more damaging revelations still await us.