The first half hour of the debate was consumed by a two-pronged assault from the senators on frontrunner Donald Trump on the issue of immigration. In a departure from past debate Cruz and Rubio kept their focus on Trump, rather than blasting each other.
The relative detente between the pair held for the rest of the debate. Cruz and Rubio often looked like a team. One picked up the fight just when the other tapped out. The pair launched attacks on Trump on immigration, Obamacare, Supreme Court justices, standing with the nation of Israel and more.
Trump bated away the endless stream of barbs with much of his characteristic swag calling Rubio a “choke artist,” and Cruz a “liar.”
Here’s how the five candidates fared in the final brawl before Super Tuesday next week:
Final Grade: A
Trump played the quintessential frontrunner role in the debate. He took constant fire from both Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz throughout the night.
Losing control of the temp during an initial, lengthy, back and forth with the senators on immigration, Trump deftly pivoted to his other defining issue — trade.
“We have a trade deficit with Mexico of $58 billion a year,” Trump said when confronted by moderator Blitzer on how he would pay for his border wall with Mexico.
Trump Ducks Cruz, Slams Clintons[lz_jwplayer video=”5oSEo6E7″ ads=”false”]
“With China, we’re losing $500 billion a year. And then people say, “don’t we want to trade?” I don’t mind trading, but I don’t want to lose $500 billion,” Trump said, demonstrating a markedly deeper fluency in policy, buffeted by statistics and facts. “Mexico just took Carrier Corporation, maker of air conditioners. They just took Ford. They’re building a $2.5 billion plant. They just took Nabisco out of Chicago,” Trump continued.
Trump missed an opportunity to slam a question from moderator Maria Celeste Arraras on how he could be strong with Hispanic voters when recent polling shows three out of every four Hispanics has an unfavorable view of Trump. Trump could have pointed out that most surveys also show roughly three out of every four Hispanic voters identify as Democrats, so the disfavor merely follows party identity.
Trump well knows the GOP doesn’t need new Hispanic voters to win the White House, but rather it needs to press the field with blue collar, predominantly white voters in the industrial midwest who’ve been hurt the worst by lopsided trade arrangements, and other policy products of a broken Washington.
Trump appeared to put a priority on general election messaging over strong, conservative primary themes. The mogul doubled down on his support for Planned Parenthood, and for a more moderate approach to replacing a repealed Obamacare.
“Call it what you want,” Trump said when Cruz intimated the mogul supported socialized medicine, “people will not be dying on the street.”
Trump was all his usual blustery self but armed with a slightly more detailed message. The mogul took many hits, but at the end of the night was still standing.
Sen. Ted Cruz
Final Grade: A-
“You know, the people that get forgotten in this debate over immigration are the hardworking men and women of this country — our millions of Americans who are losing their jobs,” Cruz thundered in a compelling reminder of his own populist appeal early in the night, “millions of legal immigrants who are losing their jobs are seeing their wages driven down.”
Cruz took repeated jabs at Donald Trump, and was able to slide in several digs at fellow Senator Marco Rubio, while Rubio seemed singularly focused on Trump.
Cruz Slams Trump[lz_jwplayer video=”9GSDyp5R” ads=”false”]
The result was a better night for Cruz than Rubio, who often appeared more serious and strong during his bouts with Trump than Rubio, and who got in more speaking time.
Hit by Trump for having no endorsements from his fellow senators, Cruz capitalized.
“When you stand up to Washington, when you honor the promise you made to the men and women who elected you and say enough with the corruption, enough with the cronyism, let’s actually stand for the working men and women of this country, Washington doesn’t like it,” Cruz said to applause.
Cruz also launched the most sustained attack on Trump of the night with a blistering tirade on Trump over the Supreme Court and the issue of religious liberty.
“He’s going to look to cut a deal,” Cruz said of Trump, “rather than fight for someone who won’t cut a deal on the Constitution.”
Trump tried to throw Cruz off by responding that the Texas senator should apologize for criticizing the judicial record of Trump’s sister. “I will not apoligize for defending constitution,” Cruz deftly replied.
The Texas senator, faced with an Alamo moment on Super Tuesday, fought his heart out. Cruz is likely to carry his home state of Texas, but only the voters on Tuesday can decide whether his debate performance will be enough for him to upset Trump in Oklahoma or Arkansas and regain serious momentum.
Sen. Marco Rubio
Final Grade: B
After months of largely laying off Trump in the debate Rubio went all out attempting to waylay the mogul Thursday night.
Rubio hammered Trump for hiring illegal immigrants at his businesses in the past. While being shouted down Rubio yelled out for voters to google “Trump. Polish workers.”
Rubio Talks Tough on Immigration[lz_jwplayer video=”Pxuednyv” ads=”false”]
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The Florida senator repeatedly whacked Trump with one-liners and clever zings but at times appeared to alternative between nervousness and arrogance.
Hitting Trump for his willingness to start a trade war with Mexico or China, Rubio had one of his best lines of the night: “Your ties and the clothes you make is made in Mexico and in China. So you’re gonna be starting a trade war against your own ties and your own suits.”
Rubio kept at Trump, but looked more rehearsed than genuine in his attacks, and more petty, likely handing most of whatever benefit there will be to Cruz.
Gov. John Kasich
Final Grade: C-
Poor John Kasich just never understood why his resume, and record haven’t boosted him into top-tier contention. The reformer governor of Ohio, with a superlative stacked congressional career to-boot just never caught traction in the outsider’s presidential election.
Kasich Pumps Israel Credentials[lz_jwplayer video=”N3OlzkRt” ads=”false”]
Kasich gave incredulous answers laden down with policy depth on a host of issues, none of which were likely to rouse the primary electorate tired of hearing from politicians.
Kasich also seemed to downplay his own convictions, noting he’s “moved on” since the Supreme Court made gay marriage the law of the land.
Aside from sounding like he knew the most about the intricacies of policy, Kasich did little to stand out.
Dr. Ben Carson
Final Grade: F
“The fruit salad of their life is what I will look at,” Carson said in his one line that will get covered most in the media.
The odd saying used to describe his credentials for a Supreme Court nominee sparked a veritable blizzard of Twitter jokes, and started trending only moments after he uttered it.
Carson Goes After North Korea[lz_jwplayer video=”AJN9INWD” ads=”false”]
Before the debate was even over Time Magazine posted a story titled: “Ben Carson’s Fruit Salad Makes the Internet Go Bananas.”
Maybe Carson is just testing out book titles now. Surely “The Fruit Salad of My Life” by Dr. Ben Carson could rival “Gifted Hands” for overall sales.
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