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Tonight's Debate Really Is the GOP's Last Chance to Take Down Donald Trump

The billionaire frontrunner will be surrounded by his remaining primary rivals in Florida tonight, perhaps for the last time.

by John Surico
Mar 10 2016, 11:25pm

Photo by Geoff Robins/AFP/Getty Images

One week ago, in the wake of yet another Republican presidential debate, the GOP Establishment's "Dump Trump" movement seemed to be finally underway, raising hopes among the party elite that Texas Senator Ted Cruz—or even, say, Mitt Romney—would finally be able to vanquish the uninvited GOP frontrunner. Heading into Tuesday's primary elections, Beltway pundits were predicting that Donald Trump's slight drop in polls was a sign of electoral relief to come.

Those predictions, like the rest of the party's anti-Trump fantasies, turned out to be wrong. The billionaire reality-TV star swept primaries in Michigan and Mississippi that night, and he won Hawaii's Republican caucus for good measure. By the end of the night, Trump's delegate count had edged closer to the 1,237 total needed to win the Republican nomination, once again crushing hopes that some saner option might emerge before the national convention in Cleveland this summer.

Undeterred, Trump's remaining rivals will take the debate stage in Miami, Florida, Thursday for what could be their last chance to take on the Teflon frontrunner. Given the desperate nature of the contest—and the cable news industry's unflagging willingness to pull America into a moral abyss of jowled shouting matches, dick-measuring contests, and Rosie O'Donnell bullying—the night is bound to be a shitshow.

For Florida Senator Marco Rubio, Thursday's debate is yet another make-or-break for his dying campaign. His performance in Tuesday night's primaries was dismal, barely registering above 10 percent in some contests, and his chances of winning Florida's primary next week look increasingly grim. A loss in his home state would be particularly brutal for the once-promising young Senator, and it would effectively banish his "New American Century" to the flea-market dustbins of failed, forgotten campaign slogan history. Worse still, a loss would mean that his final, kamikaze stand against Trump in recent weeks will have been in vain, forever tarnishing him as the candidate who brought dick jokes back into the American political process.

Apparently aware of his potential fate, Rubio has already begun his apology tour, telling Florida audiences this week that he regrets lowering the level of discourse in the Republican race. This suggests Rubio doesn't plan on going quite as ballistic Thursday as he has in the past few debates. On the other hand, the Florida Senator seems to have genuinely enjoyed attacking Trump—and since issues no longer seem to be on the table in these debates, he may work in a tiny hands joke or "con artist" jab anyway.

Thursday's debate is arguably even more important for Texas Senator Ted Cruz. After winning caucuses in Idaho, Maine, and Kansas—and closing the gap on Trump in Louisiana and Kentucky—the conservative firebrand is holding his own in the delegate count. This, combined with his recent rise in national polls, makes Cruz the logical Establishment choice for the party's nomination, but the catch, of course, is that nobody in the Establishment likes him. If the Texan can hold his own against Trump Thursday night, though, party elites may quickly forget their dislike, and throw their support behind his candidacy in advance of the winner-take-all primaries on March 15.

The candidate that no one will be watching Thursday is Ohio Governor John Kasich, the last blue-blood left standing in the storming of the GOP. Despite a recent turnaround in the polls, Kasich's dopey, white-dad routine doesn't really fit the tone of this year's circus. Sure, moderates adore him for refusing to get in the ring with the Trump, Lyin' Ted, and Lil' Marco, but that love likely won't be enough to keep Kasich in the race much longer.

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