Did the tag team attack on Donald Trump at last night’s debate from Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz arrive too late? For almost a year, Trump has not faced a sustained attack during a televised debate, in part because too many candidates on stage aimed at multiple targets, and in part from trepidation of crossing Trump’s populist movement. With scant days to go before the first Super Tuesday primaries, the frontrunner found himself under pressure all night long, primarily from Rubio. But will it matter?
Philip Bump notes that the first flurries from Rubio were more scattershot, but quickly became surgical strikes that got Trump flustered:
In the first few minutes, after Wolf Blitzer rang the bell to start the fight at the GOP debate in Houston, Rubio threw punch after punch after punch at Donald Trump, barely letting one land before he moved on to the next one. Campaigns put together portfolios of attacks that plan to use, called “oppo books.” Marco Rubio pulled every sheet out of that book and then tossed the empty cover at Trump, too, for good measure.
That was nerves. Less than an hour later, Rubio was landing strategic, gleeful blows, and Trump was flustered. Rubio’s best line was the one about how if Trump hadn’t gotten an inheritance, he’d be selling watches. But the one that grated on Trump the most was when he noted Trump’s habit of repeating himself. Over that hour, it was like Rubio leveled up.
During that first flurry, it was clear which point Rubio thought would be the most effective. He repeatedly told viewers to Google “Trump Polish workers” or “Donald Trump Polish workers,” so that people would read the details of a suit filed against the developer involving the construction of Trump Tower. That suit, which was eventually settled, accused Trump of knowingly employing and abusing illegal Polish immigrants to work on building the structure.
The big body blow came in this exchange, when Rubio challenged Trump to offer any specific plan for replacing ObamaCare. Trump kept talking about eliminating “lines around the states” but little else, prompting ridicule from Rubio. When Trump kept repeating the same thing, Rubio gleefully attacked Trump for repetition, after which Trump was left with nothing but personal insults:
Clearly, Rubio planned to shoot all the arrows in his quiver, and loosened up enough to have fun with it. Cruz, on the other hand, seemed ambivalent about his strategy, at least at first. He offered a couple of criticisms about Trump but at first seemed more interested in attacking Rubio. Cruz even passed on attacking Trump’s judgment on picking judges, even though Hugh Hewitt explicitly asked about it in the question. It wasn’t until Trump followed up on that by ripping Cruz over John Roberts that Cruz began to turn his full attention to Trump, picking up on Rubio’s attacks on Trump’s million-dollar fine for exploiting illegal immigrants and the fraud allegations at Trump University.
While Cruz did very well, especially in the second half of the debate, Rubio clearly drove the dynamics on stage and won the event. Trump did more poorly than he has in a while. But that still brings up the question — will it matter? The time to go after Trump, it turns out, was in the beginning of the cycle, before the populist eruption invested itself so heavily in Trump. With four days to go before fifteen states will assign its delegates, it seems doubtful that this one effort will be enough to turn the tide. It might be enough to instill confidence in Rubio among those looking to align behind an anti-Trump, but unless it comes down quickly to a two-man race, it won’t be enough.