Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, realizing that Thursday’s debate would be their last chance to put a serious dent in Donald Trump’s lead before Super Tuesday, came out swinging with a ferocity not yet seen from either candidate. Rubio was especially prepared for battle, but both men seemed to understand that it was no longer a reasonable strategy to fight for second place. They hit Trump on his business record, his inheritance, his stance on healthcare, and nearly every other issue they could come up with.
Whether or not it will make any difference, however, remains to be seen.
Trump, who hasn’t been hammered this hard on the debate stage yet, handled the pile-on relatively well. One of his best moments came when Rubio accused him of being the only one on stage who had hired illegal immigrants, to which Trump responded, “I‘m the only one on the stage that’s hired people. You haven’t hired anybody.”
The melee between the three frontrunners left little room for John Kasich and Ben Carson to maneuver. Carson, who has made it a point to complain about his airtime at nearly every debate, had perhaps the biggest laugh of the night when he pleaded: “Could somebody attack me, please?”
For Cruz and Rubio, it was a change of pace from several weeks of being at each others’ throats. For once, we didn’t have to spend much time on their debate over who supported amnesty and when. But their truce meant trouble for Trump, who had to spend the evening defending himself from the newly-formed tag team.
Attempting to become the first choice for establishment voters, Rubio was clearly feeling the pressure. He’s losing to Trump in his home state of Florida, and a loss there could spell the beginning of the end for his candidacy. While going after Trump in this kind of direct fashion is a risk, he’s out of options at this point. Regardless of how much they hate Trump, the RNC isn’t going to simply award the nomination to the second or third place finisher. If Rubio wants it, he’s going to have to go out and get it.
Assuming that Trump plays this in his usual way, Rubio is getting ready to feel the full wrath of The Donald in the coming days. If he can survive, it could signal to the donor class that they’ve settled on the right man. Certainly, he’s already doing much better than his former mentor, Jeb Bush.
But if either Cruz or Rubio want to dethrone the champ, it may be that one of them must leave the race. As long as they sit there and split the shrinking pool of non-Trump voters, the plurality will go to Trump. Rubio may have had a good debate night, but as we’ve seen already, it’s going to take more than a few good lines to derail this train.