Gloves Come Off Against Trump In Tenth Republican Debate, But Is It Too Little, Too Late?
Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz landed some punches on Donald Trump last night, but it's doubtful that they changed the nature of the race.
The remaining Republican candidates for President met on a debate stage for the tenth time last night and, perhaps for the first time, Donald Trump took serious fire from his opponents as both Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio aimed their attacks at him rather than each other. After eight months though, the question whether it was too little, too late:
Senator Marco Rubio, alarmed by Donald J. Trump’s ascendancy and worried that his presidential chances were slipping away, unleashed a barrage of attacks on the real estate mogul’s business ethics, hiring practices and financial achievements in Thursday’s debate, forcefully delivering the onslaught that Republican leaders had desperately awaited.
In a series of acid exchanges, a newly pugnacious Mr. Rubio, long mocked for a robotic and restrained style, interrupted Mr. Trump, quizzed him, impersonated him, shouted over him and left him looking unsettled. It was an unfamiliar reversal of roles for the front-runner, who found himself so frequently the target of assaults from Mr. Rubio and Senator Ted Cruz that he complained they must have been a ploy for better television ratings.
From the opening moments of the debate, Mr. Rubio pounced. Deploying his own up-by-the-bootstraps biography, the Florida senator assailed Mr. Trump for hiring hundreds of foreign workers at his tony resort in Florida and passing over Americans who had applied for the same jobs
“My mom was a maid in a hotel,” Mr. Rubio said. “And instead of hiring an American like her, you’ve brought over 1,000 people from all over the world to fill in those jobs instead.”
Moments later, Mr. Rubio moved to cast Mr. Trump as a huckster who outsourced the manufacturing of the clothing that bears his name to countries like Mexico and China even as he promised to wage a trade war against those countries.
When Mr. Trump tried to protest, Mr. Rubio interrupted right back.
“Make them in America!” he demanded.
The acerbic and urgent tenor of the exchanges reflected the panicked state of a Republican field determined to halt Mr. Trump, whose crudely freewheeling style, abundant self-assuredness and durable popularity have produced three consecutive early-state victories that threaten to put the nomination out of reach for his two biggest rivals, Mr. Rubio and Mr. Cruz.
The two-hour rumpus frequently devolved into unmediated bouts of shouting, name-calling and pleas to the moderators for chances to respond to the latest insult.
“This guy’s a choke artist,” Mr. Trump declared, pointing to Mr. Rubio. “This guy’s a liar,” he said, swiveling toward Mr. Cruz.
The timing of Thursday’s debate in Houston, days before 595 delegates are awarded in voting across the country on March 1, made it among the most anticipated and consequential debates of the Republican campaign season and the first to feature a shrunken field of five candidates.
After resounding defeats at the hands of Mr. Trump in the past two primaries, both Mr. Rubio and Mr. Cruz walked onto the stage confronting treacherous paths ahead and a pressing dilemma: whether to keep trying to destroy each other, their comfort zone in past debates, or to aim their fire at Mr. Trump.
They chose war with Mr. Trump. But amid the relentless back and forth, a question hovered: Was it too late?
It did not seem so, as Mr. Trump’s usual bravado gave way to a less nimble performance. After a tense exchange with Mr. Cruz over the depth of their conservatism and fidelity to the Constitution, Mr. Trump awkwardly asked for an apology.
Mr. Cruz refused, instead seizing on Mr. Trump’s values.
“Donald, I will not apologize for one minute for defending the Constitution,” he said.
The audience broke into applause.
Given the intractability of Mr. Trump’s support and the cruel mathematics of capturing the nomination, it was unclear whether his shakiness in the debate would blunt his momentum, especially with his impressive lead in several key states that will vote over the next few days.
But for a single night, it seemed, the dynamic among the candidates shifted, not only because Mr. Trump appeared off-balance at times, but because his rivals seemed looser, more comfortable and even delighted to take him on. Mr. Rubio smiled as he issued biting dissections of the less savory chapters of Mr. Trump’s business history and even questioned the very essence of Mr. Trump’s success story, saying he was simply the heir to a vast fortune.
“If he hadn’t inherited $200 million, you know where Donald Trump would be right now? Selling watches in Manhattan?” Mr. Rubio said, as the audience erupted in laughter.
“That is so wrong,” Mr. Trump said, plaintively.
When, at another point, Mr. Trump said that Mr. Rubio did not know “anything about business,” the senator responded: “I don’t know anything about bankrupting four companies,” an allusion to Mr. Trump’s liberal use of bankruptcy protections over the years.
For Mr. Rubio, the night seemed to be something of a revival, allowing him to turn the most painful moment of his campaign into an effective tactic against Mr. Trump. Earlier this month, he repeated himself four times in a disastrous debate-night run-in with Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey. On Thursday night, as Mr. Trump gave only a vague description of his health care proposals, Mr. Rubio gave him the Christie treatment. “What’s your plan?” he taunted.
When Mr. Trump spoke repeatedly about increasing competition among states — “You’ll have many, they’ll compete, and it’ll be a beautiful thing” — Mr. Rubio observed, “Now he’s repeating himself,” to raucous applause.
Mr. Trump tried to regain control, saying: “Talk about repeating. I watched him repeat himself five times four weeks ago.”
But it was Mr. Rubio who had the last word.
“I saw you repeat yourself five times five seconds ago,” he zinged, laughing.
Mr. Rubio’s performance appeared to be pitched most directly at skeptical party elites and donors, who are banking on him as an alternative to Mr. Trump and have grown increasingly impatient watching his sometimes passive performances. Gov. John Kasich of Ohio, on the other hand, seemed to be making a broader appeal to the hearts of Republican and independent voters as he heaped praise on former President George Bush, who sat in the audience with his wife, Barbara Bush, by his side.
Mr. Kasich infused his message with sympathy for the downtrodden and overlooked, and offered a surprising olive branch to gay voters, saying he was uncomfortable with restrictions, advocated by conservatives, that would allow businesses to deny service to same-sex couples who wish to wed.
“Today, I’m not going to sell to somebody who’s gay, and tomorrow, maybe I won’t sell to somebody who’s divorced,” Mr. Kasich said. “I mean, if you’re in the business of commerce, conduct commerce. That’s my view.”
Mr. Kasich, who faces pressure to quit the race to clear a path for either Mr. Cruz or Mr. Rubio, showed no signs of relenting as he appealed to the party’s sense of civility and fondly recalled Mr. Bush’s collaboration with President Ronald Reagan on immigration in the 1980s. “It was,” he said, “a time when things worked.”
Ben Carson, the retired neurosurgeon whose once-promising candidacy has fizzled, leaving him on the far edges of the campaign and the debate stage, used his rare moment in the spotlight on Thursday to complain once again about how little attention he was receiving. “I’m going to whine,” he said languorously, scolding a moderator, Hugh Hewitt, for not asking him about subjects ranging from Israel to taxes.
The Washington Post has more:
A feistier Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida emerged on the debate stage here Thursday night, taking the fight for the GOP nomination directly to front-runner Donald Trump and attacking him as a hypocrite on the immigration issue that has fueled Trump’s remarkable political rise.
Sparring between the two dominated the debate, turning the other three candidates on the stage into bystanders for much of the evening.
Rubio’s aggressive and bold move came at an urgent moment in the Republican presidential race. Trump has won three state contests in a row, building momentum that could make him unstoppable as the campaign moves from a series of single-state skirmishes to a national battlefield in next week’s Super Tuesday contests.
Many consider Rubio the Republican establishment’s best — and possibly last — hope to prevent Trump from becoming the party’s standard-bearer.
His robust performance stood in contrast to his robotic, scripted demeanor at an earlier debate in New Hampshire, which Rubio himself has blamed for his poor showing there. Rubio has also been accumulating what could be a critical mass of endorsements and support from Republican donors and elected officials.
Rubio mocked Trump’s often-repeated claim that he is responsible for elevating the immigration issue and putting it onto the front line of the campaign. The Florida senator accused the billionaire real estate developer of hiring foreign labor over Americans, noting that Trump was sued and fined for underpaying undocumented Polish workers when he was building his Trump Tower in the 1980s.
“You’re only person on this stage that has ever been fined for hiring people to work on your projects illegally,” Rubio said.
“I’m the only one on the stage that’s hired people. You haven’t hired anybody,” Trump retorted. “You haven’t hired one person, you liar.”
At some points, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who is also seeking to ascend as Trump’s primary foe, joined Rubio in a sort of tag team. Cruz noted that he had battled a 2013 effort supported by Rubio to pass immigration reform and give illegal immigrants a pathway to citizenship.
“Where was Donald? He was firing Dennis Rodman on ‘Celebrity Apprentice,’ ” Cruz said, mocking Trump’s long career in reality television. He then said Trump had donated to many of the reform bill’s sponsors: “When you’re funding open-border politicians, you shouldn’t be surprised when they fight for open borders.”
Casting Trump as insufficiently conservative, Cruz said the last person that those on the right should want in the White House is a businessman who is legendary for dealmaking.
“He is promising if he’s elected he will go and cut deals in Washington. And he’s right. He has supported — he has given hundreds of thousands of dollars to Democrats. Anyone who really cared about illegal immigration wouldn’t be hiring illegal immigrants,” Cruz said.
Trump lashed out at Cruz, noting his reputation as the least-liked member of the U.S. Senate.
“You get along with nobody,” Trump said to Cruz. “You don’t have the endorsement of one Republican senator and you work with these people. You should be ashamed of yourself.”
As the two senators persisted with their barbs, Trump resorted to name-calling. “This guy is a choke artist, and this guy is a liar,” he said of Rubio and Cruz, respectively. At another point, he called Cruz a “basket case.”
The debate — held at the University of Houston and sponsored by CNN, Telemundo and Salem Radio Network — was the 10th for the Republicans this election cycle. It was also the first since former Florida governor Jeb Bush, who early on had been considered the presumptive front-runner, bowed out of the contest.
That left only five contenders on the stage for the final faceoff before 11 state contests next Tuesday. A total of 595 delegates — nearly half the total needed to get the nomination — will be up for grabs.
The Super Tuesday balloting will also mark the moment at which the presidential campaign goes national. While many of the states that will be voting are in the deep-red South, the contests will stretch across the map.
Texas, with 155 delegates, is the biggest prize of all. A win here is most critical for Cruz, who has been leading in most public polls and who will find it difficult to go forward if he is defeated in his home state.
Trump taunted him by citing one recent poll: “I’m tied in Texas, which I shouldn’t be.”
When Cruz replied that polls also show Trump losing to likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, Trump fired back: “If I can’t beat her, you’re really going to get killed.”
“Keep fighting. Keep swinging for the fences,” Trump added, dismissively.
If nothing else, this debate was different from all the others to the extent that there were aggressive attacks against Donald Trump that didn’t fizzle out after one or two minutes, but it’s not at all clear that any of it is going to matter. For one thing, most of the attacks on Trump dealt with matters that, in one way or another, have been covered in the media several times since Trump entered the race last June and, in some cases, before he was even a candidate for President. To that degree, one could argue that these attacks, such as the fact that the clothing line that bears Trump’s name was made overseas or the fact that four of the entities that have borne his name over the years have filed for protection under the bankruptcy code, are already “baked into the cake” when it comes to public opinion about Donald Trump. Some of the other attacks, such as the allegations regarding “Trump University” or the fact that some of Trump’s businesses have hired foreign workers brought to the United States via work visas, are obviously meant to point out Trump’s hypocrisy on issues such as immigration, but it occurs to me that these hits are likely to be ineffective to the extent Trump can dismiss them with the largely accurate response that he was working within the system as it exists, and he wants to change the system. Similarly, when candidates like Rubio and Cruz mention, for what seems like the thousandth time, that he has donated to Democrats in the past, the fact that he dismisses it as the cost of having to do business in cities such as New York and Chicago is something that seems to blunt the attacks. To that extent, then, the attacks against Trump that center on his business record don’t seem like they’re going to have much of an impact.
Rubio and Cruz were arguably more effective in attacking Trump on policy grounds, but even there it’s unclear that it’s going to matter in the end. The fact that Donald Trump has taken positions in the past, or even during the course of this campaign, that deviate from conservative orthodoxy, or that he hasn’t offered any detailed plans for how he’s going to achieve what he promises is something that everyone who has been following the race knows by now. Trump’s supporters obviously don’t care about it, and those that do care about are currently lined up behind other candidates. If this were August or September of last year and Rubio, Cruz, or someone else were mounting the same aggressive attack that they did last night then perhaps it might make a difference. At this point in the race, with Trump having won three out of the first four contests of 2016 and placed a strong second in the fourth, and polls showing him leading in a majority of Super Tuesday states, it’s arguably too little, too late. This would seem to be especially true since, when one watches the video clips of the most argumentative parts of last night’s proceedings, both Cruz and Rubio come across as shrill and childish. Additionally, the fact that several of these exchanges basically consisted of all three candidates yelling at each other it seems unlikely that voters who haven’t already made up their minds are going to be very impressed. Since these clips, rather than the full debate, are how most people are likely going to see the debate it seems unlikely that any of these three men is going to come across very well. To the extent that helps anyone, it helps the frontrunner.
Josh Marshall puts it this way:
Let’s state the point clearly: Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz failed utterly to put a dent in Donald Trump or his seemingly clear path to the Republican nomination. In their defense, it was a huge challenge. If Trump does as well on Tuesday as the current polls suggest, he will likely be unstoppable. Not necessarily because the numbers will make him inevitable but because the pageantry of winning will continue to elevate Trump and overwhelm Rubio and Cruz. To prevent that, one or the other needed to land a devastating blow – something on the level of what Chris Christie did to Rubio before New Hampshire. Frankly, it needed to be even worse. They didn’t come close.
This isn’t to say they didn’t land some punches. Early in the debate Rubio surfaced a number of scandals that could potentially be very damaging to Trump. I think the “Trump University” scam is ultimately the most damning – a clownishly crooked scam that exploited people who didn’t have a lot of money but bet it all on Trump’s razzmatazz. He also landed some hits on Trump’s inability to say anything specific about his health care plans other than allowing people to purchase insurance across state lines – a tired nostrum the only practical effect of which is to end all regulation of health care insurance and make the system wildly more unfair than it was before. Still, I don’t think any of these attacks mattered much. The only thing to emerge from the debate which I think could possibly hurt Trump was entirely self-inflicted: his announcement that he can’t release his tax returns because he’s in the midst of a multi-year IRS audit – a point which is both nonsensical on its face and highly problematic from any politician operating in the gravity universe. I think there was little follow-up from the moderators because they were simply gobsmacked by what Trump was saying and couldn’t think of how to respond.
But again, with the possible exception of the audit thing, I don’t think much of it matters at all. The two senators had an almost impossible task – landing a decisive blow against a player who has been entirely impervious to decisive blows and is simply a better debater than either of them. The need to land that decisive blow created a series of visuals, set pieces and mini-dramas in which they gave their absolute all to take him down and inevitably failed. On balance, that made them look small and confirmed the pervasive impression of his strength and their weakness. They’re being crushed by a guy who by any normal political calculus is a joke.
Other post-debate analysis is more kind to Rubio and Cruz, and far less kind to Trump, but it’s likely that it’s not going to matter even if that assessment proves to be the one that takes hold with the public. Earlier this month, Donald Trump had what pretty much everyone agreed was a “bad debate” a week before the South Carolina Primary in which his attacks on George W. Bush were seen as having crossed a line that South Carolina voters allegedly wouldn’t accept. As it turned out, Trump ended up exceeding his polling expectations in the Palmetto State, and followed that up with an even bigger win in Nevada. Given that, the odds that this debate will have a real impact on the race seem slim at best. As I said, if these aggressiveness against Trump had come earlier in the election cycle, it’s possible that the history of the 2016 campaign may have unfolded differently. Bringing those attacks now, though, seems like it’s likely to be too little, too late and that Trump’s momentum is unlikely to be blunted. Whether that assessment is correct is something we’ll have to wait until Tuesday night to know for sure.