For months now, the primetime debate stage has been a bounty for Donald Trump. It's where the Republican presidential candidate has been able to translate his abusive Twitter persona into IRL bullying, systematically dispensing of his 2016 opponents—and also the media, the moderators, and several US trading partners—with a well-timed eye roll or a particularly cutting insult. Trump has never been a great debater in terms of substance, but on television—and increasingly off of it—the GOP primary race is just another badly acted reality contest, a format the real estate mogul knows well.
So, Trump took the stage in Houston Thursday with a swagger, the unlikely favorite to win the Republican nomination after winning three states' nominating contests in a row. In the wake of his victories, Trump's opponents, wary of going the way of Jeb Bush, had mostly continued to ignore him, preferring instead to claw at one another for second place. There was no reason to think that another debate—the last match up before Super Tuesday—would be anything but a win.
But Trump didn't get another win. For the first time this election cycle, his rivals Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio laid into him, taking advantage of what may have been their last chance to stop the apparently unstoppable frontrunner. It was the debate the Republican Establishment had been waiting for: a shrill indictment not just of Trump's policies, but also his ego and persona, equal parts hilarious and horrifying. And it offered a window into the party's strange struggle to rebel from the inside out.
In his strongest debate performance so far, Rubio took the lead in the anti-Trump effort, attacking his opponent with a ferocity that was definitely not present in previous debates. The young Florida senator, who has flagged in previous debates, appeared to have done his homework this time, hurling page after page of opposition research at Trump. At every opportunity, Rubio would run through a laundry list of Trump's corporate misdeeds, including the fraud case against Trump University, the use of undocumented workers to build Trump Tower, requests for foreign workers at Trump properties in Florida, and those four bankruptcies.
He also attacked Trump for being rich—a first in this GOP campaign. "If he hadn't inherited $200 million, you know where Donald Trump would be right now?" Rubio asked. "Selling watches in Manhattan." The logic may have been hard to follow, but the point was pretty clear.
Rubio found his most effective line of attack, though, in an exchange over Obamacare, when he pressed Trump for his plans to reform the health care system. "You don't have a plan!" Rubio jeered, when Trump repeated his call to allow insurance sales over state lines. "Now he's repeating himself!" It was the same criticism Chris Christie had used to level Rubio in New Hampshire weeks earlier—and it worked on Trump.
"I'm not repeating myself," Trump protested. "I'm not repeating myself!" Hardly anyone heard him over the applause.
Cruz similarly tried out a couple of jabs, taking a break from smearing Rubio to demand that Trump clarify his views on the Supreme Court vacancy, the Israel-Palestine conflict, and religious liberty, and pointing out (again) that Trump once donated to Democratic politicians such as Hillary Clinton and John Kerry. But Cruz mostly just looked like Rubio's less cool older brother, playing third wheel as the Florida senator smirked his way through three hours worth of attack lines.
Trump, meanwhile, seemed ill-prepared for the onslaught. Hounded by rivals on both sides of his podium, as well as by the moderators, Trump's only reaction was to insult his attackers. "I mean, first of all, this guy is a choke artist, and this guy is a liar," he said finally, frustrated, gesturing at Rubio and then Cruz. The only person who seemed to notice, though, was Ben Carson, who requested that someone please attack him too.
As chaotic as the whole ungodly experience was, it was the first time this election cycle that someone managed to embarrass Trump, a heartening sign that he is perhaps vulnerable, and that the Republican race could go another way. But as excited as GOP elites might be to see Rubio land a hit Thursday, Trump's fans are unlikely to be swayed by a night where Trump looked like a blustering bully who can't describe his own policies—that's the candidate they fell in love with, after all.
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