HOUSTON, TEXAS - Quick reactions to tonight's CNN/Salem Radio Network Republican debate, the final one before 565 bound delegates are allocated in Super Tuesday's nominating contests:
(1) Marco Rubio won. Rubio generally performs well in these settings, with one infamous exception early in the New Hampshire forum -- but tonight felt different. He came after Trump with ridicule and persistence, hammering the frontrunner on a host of issues, most memorably on immigration, Israel, and Obamacare. Early on, Rubio prodded Trump on his vague-at-best healthcare plan, leading to the exchange of the night:
Trump often demonstrates his shallowness on policy matters, but rarely has he seemed so flummoxed. Rubio's savage "repeating himself" line was sly because it was both self-deprecating and true of Trump, who missed the joke. Somewhat implausibly, the Florida Senator won plaudits from a series of Cruz backers -- and even Cruz himself. For what it's worth, Frank Luntz's focus group named Rubio the lopsided victor:
Previous strong showings from Rubio have boosted him in Iowa and South Carolina, while a memorably bad confrontation with Chris Christie really wounded him in New Hampshire. If recent history is any indication, tonight's proceedings will benefit Rubio heading into Tuesday. But by how much? And is it too late to matter?
(2) Ted Cruz had a very good night, too. Aside from occasional barbs, the two conservative Senators laid off of each other for the most part, training their joint fire on the man they're chasing. As powerful as Rubio was at times, Cruz deserves a lot of credit for keeping the pressure up on Trump, grilling him on Obamacare, and landing a devastating real-time fact-check on Trump's position on the Libya intervention. Cruz was also crafty when he endured a predictable shot from Trump about polling before pressing his point on general election polling, as opposed to primary polling. Here's the reality that Trump would prefer not to talk about:
Cruz and Rubio each lead Mrs. Clinton in the RCP average; Trump trails her head-to-head, in addition to his poor fundamentals. Which was Cruz's point. The Texas Senator also deserves credit for revisiting fresh attacks on Trump (the Trump University fraud allegations) for example that may have gotten lost in the shuffle of earlier previous fisticuffs. This was Rubio and Cruz's unspoken alliance at its most effective and ruthless. Several new polls show Cruz leading in his home state. After this debate, I'd bet he'll defend his home turf on Tuesday.
(3) Donald Trump is still the frontrunner. If anyone believes Trump's performance -- which was objectively bad overall and painfully flailing at times -- will harm his standing, they've been napping through the last six months. In addition to sustaining blows, he landed a few haymakers of his own, turning an attack on his employment of illegal workers into a reminder that he's the only candidate on stage who's actually hired anyone, for instance. But Rubio and Cruz drew blood, connecting with tough hits throughout the evening. Trump's new excuse about his tax returns -- which he has fought tooth and nail to conceal over many years -- doesn't make sense. Enter Mitt Romney, joining the pile-on from his couch:
No legit reason @realDonaldTrump can't release returns while being audited, but if scared, release earlier returns no longer under audit.— Mitt Romney (@MittRomney) February 26, 2016
You could tell how sensitive Trump is about this issue when he hurled an inaccurate insult at Hugh Hewitt after the successful radio host asked a completely legitimate question about it. Trump's spiteful doghouse is getting crowded, it seems:
(4) John Kasich built his brand. Sometimes it seems as if the Ohio governor is burnishing his Veep credentials, especially when one considers public (!) statements like this. His message: I'm extremely experienced across multiple levels of government, I'm reliable, I connection with an important subset of voters, I try to elevate the discourse...and did I mention that my brand is gold in Ohio?
(5) Ben Carson had the laugh line of the night. Having whined about fielding too few questions for the umpteenth time, Carson briefly interjected during a heated barrage, begging someone to attack him -- an amusing reference to the debate rules. The press room erupted into laughter. During Salem Radio Network's post-debate coverage, I asked the surgeon what his campaign's goal is for Super Tuesday. "Some delegates," he replied.
Parting thought: How long will the Rubio/Cruz marriage of convenience last? Was this merely a momentary alliance, or a sign of an emerging strategy? Tick tock.