Cokie Roberts and Steven V. Roberts

Trump Meets the Media Primary

After his confrontation with Megyn Kelly during last week's televised debate, Donald Trump was asked if he'd apologize to the Fox News anchor for calling her a "bimbo" and implying that her questioning was motivated by her menstrual cycle.

"I have nothing to apologize" for, he replied on "Meet the Press." "I thought she asked a very, very unfair question."

In another interview with The Washington Post, Trump lamented that he had not been tossed "two or three softballs" by Kelly and the other Fox interrogators, Chris Wallace and Bret Baier. "It was boom, boom, boom, in terms of their questions, right from the start," he complained.

Exactly, Mr. Trump. Meet the Media Primary.

Until now, Trump has generally been treated like a celebrity, a TV star, a billionaire businessman. But when he stood on that stage in Cleveland -- right in the center, given his prominence in the polls -- something important changed.

From that moment on, he's been considered a serious candidate for president, and that shift was both inevitable and essential. Only through media scrutiny can the voters get a true picture of the people who want to lead the country. Only then can they see past the scripts and the soundbites and glimpse the real character behind the public mask.

The first test of the media primary is how candidates stand up to the pressure of intense questioning, and clearly Trump did not do very well. Bluster and bravado are not a long-term strategy.

But the exam goes well beyond one televised moment. Almost immediately, news organizations dug deeper into Trump's past, unearthing a long string of comments demeaning women. While those comments have been public for years -- some of them for decades -- they take on a new context now that Trump is a political candidate.

"What's different is that nobody ever focused or heard any of those comments through the lens of a man who wants to be president," GOP pollster Kellyanne Conway told the Post.

Other stories have dug into Trump's failed business dealings. There are more investigations to come, and there should be.

The most important change in the political dynamic, however, is occurring inside voters' heads. Many Republicans will start viewing Trump from a different angle, holding him to a different standard.

The test will shift from celebrity to gravity; from star power to security. The question will no longer be, "Is he amusing?" It will be "Is he reassuring? Can I trust his judgment?" And a growing number of voters are likely to answer that question with a "no."

A similar media primary is happening on the Democratic side. Mainstream papers like the Post and The New York Times are leading the probes of Hillary Clinton's email systems and the tangled financial dealings of her family foundation.

Last spring, the Times even headlined one story, "Clinton's Toughest Foe Appears to be the News Media." And Clinton supporters sound a bit like Trump when they complain about press coverage.

"It's official," said Eric Boehler in a post this spring on Media Matters, a progressive (and often pro-Clinton) website. "Hillary Clinton now faces two looming campaign challengers: Republicans and their allies in the press."

We've covered more than a dozen presidential campaigns, and one truth keeps recurring: Even the most experienced politicians don't really know what it's like to endure the media primary, to withstand the "boom, boom, boom" of relentless examination.

"A campaign is not a reality TV show," warns veteran GOP operative Ed Rollins. "It's a very tough exercise. You don't have the privilege of just saying, 'I'm a billionaire, I'm going to build a wall and screw you.'"

Something else has changed as well: the willingness of other Republican candidates to confront Trump. Even during the debate, they treated him gently, worried that he'd run as a third-party candidate if he felt insulted, and eager to pick up his supporters if he begins to fade.

But now Trump's rivals realize another risk: If he goes unchallenged, his hostility toward women and Latinos could deeply damage whoever emerges with the GOP nomination.

"I think we've crossed that Rubicon, where his behavior becomes about us, not just him," says Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. "There can be no more tiptoeing around this."

In the first poll after the debate, conducted by NBC, Trump was still running in front with 23 percent of Republican voters. But 29 percent -- by the far the highest number -- thought he had done the "worst job" in the debate.

From now on, the spotlight will only get hotter. The questions will only get harder. The "boom, boom, boom" will only get louder. And that's as it should be.

That's what the voters need and deserve.

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