William F. B. O'Reilly is a consultant to Republicans.
"You have to tell me the truth," the candidate implored. "Don't you wish you could get out of this, too?"
The bottom had just dropped out, dramatically, on a promising, high-profile political race, and the candidate, in abject panic, desperately wanted out. The other guy's research team had turned up an unexpected trove of salacious tabloid material to use against us, and slow-motion public humiliation was certain to follow.
I swear I saw that look on Donald Trump's face Wednesday night following CNN's marathon Republican presidential debate at the Ronald Reagan library: It's the look that says: how do I get out of this?More coverageOpinion and analysis about the 2016 presidential campaign
Trump didn't do a terrible job during the debate, but his persona got punctured for the first time. It wasn't just former Hewlett-Packard chief executive Carly Fiorina who did it to him; Sen. Rand Paul cut him, too. So did New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. And former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. And Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. In fact, most everyone put a gash into Trump, and for the first time he looked truly wounded.
The King of Bombast seemed downright docile following the debate. He was uncharacteristically polite in a CNN stand-up interview, saying that all the candidates had done a good job, before reverting, almost by self-reminder, to braggadocio about his poll standings. Something was different about the Donald Trump who came off that stage.
It's an assault on the ear to say "put a fork in that shtick," but I think that's a fair colloquial take away from California: Trump's shtick -- his 40-year bread-and-butter routine -- had finally run its course. It had fallen flat before 23 million viewers, leaving him on stage near defenseless against a highly skilled group of political professionals.
His debate performance was followed by controversy a day later when he failed to correct a supporter's erroneous statement that President Obama is a Muslim, a "not even an American." Now, post-debate polling by CNN shows Trump still in the lead at 24 percent. However, that's an 8-point drop from previous polling by the cable network.
It's easy to lampoon the career politician. But the game is a lot tougher than it looks. Just like there's a reason why the same handful of players make it back to the World Series of Poker each year, there's a reason why so few make it to a presidential debate stage. It takes talent, seasoning and thousands of hours of study.
Trump's shtick had protected him from myriad deficiencies. He knows little about public policy; he holds no core political convictions, and he plays with the facts all the time. Stripped of that protection, Trump will have to answer for all of them, while the nation watches. He will be held accountable for his statements, just like every other candidate. (Does he still say he didn't try to get casino gambling in Florida?)
On the day of the debate, NBC announced that Arnold Schwarzenegger will take Trump's place as host of "The Apprentice," the show that made Trump a household name. But it's not "You're fired!" that I can hear Schwarzenegger saying. It's a line he spoke in the 1987 movie, "Predator."
"If it bleeds, we can kill it," Schwarzenegger said. That's what all the other campaigns now know.
William F. B. O'Reilly is a Republican consultant.