Conservative Senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio reprised their roles as fierce Trump critics at last night's presidential debate in Detroit, relentlessly attacking the frontrunner they're both chasing. Their positioning last night, as in the recent Houston debate, was symbiotic. One would punch at Trump and land some blows, then the the other would follow-through, maintaining pressure on the billionaire. A few additional thoughts on each candidate:
(1) Ted Cruz won this debate. He was sharp, focused, and ruthless throughout the event, turning Trump attacks into effective counter-assaults. His strongest moments were pressing Trump hard on his multiple donations to Hillary Clinton's 2008 presidential campaign, a theme he tied in to several subsequent answers. He was also prosecutorial in his insistence that Trump allow the New York Times to release audio of an off-the-record conversation about immigration. Trump refused several times. He also took a Trump taunt about polling and turned it into a key point. Trump touted a CNN poll indicating that he holds a very large national lead in the Republican primary. Cruz countered with that exact same poll, which shows that both he and Rubio lead Hilary Clinton in that survey's general election ballot question, whereas Trump loses handily. Even when he wasn't savaging Trump, Cruz offered poised and commanding answers across a litany of issues. His response upbraiding decades of failed left-wing leadership in the city of Detroit was powerful, as were his points about the Supreme Court. Very strong night for him.
(2) Marco Rubio performed well. As usual, the Floridian performed ably on the debate stage, challenging and prodding Donald Trump repeatedly -- while laying off Cruz (who returned the courtesy). His feistiness in the early moments of the debate set the tone, calling Trump out for always responding to substantive criticism with personal, superficial answers. Trump
(3) John Kasich excelled with his niche.
(4) Donald Trump remains the man to beat. For the second consecutive debate, he was exposed as a policy...well, lightweight, both by his rivals and by Fox News moderators. On multiple occasions, Fox hosts fact-checked Trump in real time, unmasking flip-flops, incoherence, and policy vacuity. Whether this has an impact on voters remains to be seen, but I wouldn't bet on a significant shift. One of his most potent comebacks is to deride his opponents as chattering, do-nothing politicians. He used it frequently last night, triggering applause from his supporters. If Cruz and Rubio were able to raise significant doubts about his business success and acumen (and his immigration stance), that could have an impact. But the question is, have these attacks come too late in this process to really sink in and alter the outcome? Perhaps. Trump's best answer of the night was his last one, when he laughed off the suggestion that anyone else could win the nomination, talked up the GOP enthusiasm gap over Democrats this cycle, and reiterated his loyalty pledge in an almost pitying way. A good close for him. There's still a path to defeating him, but it's an
I beat Hillary Clinton in so many polls. pic.twitter.com/ZuihiRzlz0— Phil Kerpen (@kerpen) March 4, 2016
UPDATE - I analyzed last night's debate with moderator Megyn Kelly, via Right Sightings: