Baer: The case for (gulp) Trump v. Clinton

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton

REPUBLICAN candidates and their party are arriving at, arguably, the most critical point yet in campaign 2016.

Just five

days from Super Tuesday, the GOP candidates still running for president - including, incredibly, Ben Carson - debate each other Thursday night live on CNN.

This is important.

In a year when voters are paying attention and watching TV debates - according to the Pew Research Center, much more than in the past two presidential races - these stand-at-a-lectern-and-rant events actually do matter.

This despite exaggerated playground taunts from Donald Trump, such as that Ted Cruz is the "single biggest liar," and despite bizarre outbursts from Carson, such as saying Vladimir Putin has "a one-horse country - oil and energy."

Is Cruz really the biggest liar? And couldn't one make a case that oil and energy are really two, um, horses?

Nonetheless, and despite participants, debates are driving votes.

Thursday's debate is in Houston, the Super Tuesday state with the most delegates (155), and the state where Cruz is junior senator and has to win if he or anyone is to slow the front-running Trump's campaign to make America great again.

Otherwise (something I never thought I'd write), The Donald's set to don his party's mantle.

Real Clear Politics' average of polls has Trump over Cruz nationally by 14 points and Marco Rubio by 18 points, with John Kasich and Carson still in single digits.

In Texas, Cruz leads Trump by eight points (37-29), with Rubio, Kasich, and Carson nowhere in sight.

But here's the thing.

Even if Cruz wins Texas on Tuesday, Trump's set to have a super night.

With more than a dozen GOP primaries and caucuses, Trump holds leads almost everywhere, some by wide margins.

As we've seen, Trump can say, do, tweet, or retweet anything without losing support. Even when he says opposing things on the same hot topic days apart, there is no consequence.

Take his recent rave about how George W. Bush's administration started the Iraq War: "They lied. They said there were weapons of mass destruction. There were none." Days later: "I'm not talking about lying. ... Nobody really knows why we went into Iraq."

This is the secret to his success: He tells it like it is - when he tells it.

What could change for Trump between Thursday night and Tuesday?

I'm betting nothing.

That's because nothing sticks to Trump. There's no time. Before he has to fully address any single controversy (Mexicans are rapists, John McCain's not a hero, ban Muslims, deport 11 million), another controversy takes its place.

The constancy of news, all the debates, and now all the primaries show Trump the aggressor and/or the winner.

That is sinking in.

Chances of denying Trump the GOP nomination seem past; absent, of course, the potential beauty of a brokered convention in Cleveland.

Tuesday likely hands Trump more states and lots more delegates. He leads in polls in Alabama, Alaska, Georgia, Massachusetts, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Vermont, and Virginia.

It's hard to see Cruz trumping Trump. It's hard to see where Rubio wins (he even trails Trump in Florida). It's hard to see Kasich catching fire. It's now flat-out impossible for Carson to cut through.

This unfolds as Democrats now appear likely to crown Hillary Clinton.

And while national demographics seem to favor Clinton over Trump in November, remember two things.

First, few thought Trump ever could be the nominee; it now appears he can.

Second, fewer thought he ever could be president; that, too, is changing.

National polling last June had Clinton beating Trump by 17 to 24 points. National polling last week had Clinton up three points - within the margin of error.

If the next several days go as expected, if Clinton falters no further, Americans could face a November choice between a man for whom facts are a movable feast and a woman who's "always tried to tell the truth."