Grading the Candidates, Round 11

Trump weathers a hurricane-force onslaught from rivals and moderators alike

Donald Trump was battered throughout the night by the two senators on his flanks hungry to take him down, and by moderators looking to draw blood. Sens. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio assailed the GOP front-runner on hiring foreign workers at Mar-A-Lago, Trump University, refusing to release an off-the-record recording of his New York Times editorial board interview, and even the size of his hands.

Trump dismissed, dinged, and dumped on the pair in return, surviving all with his front-runner mantle well intact.

Here’s how the four candidates who made the stage fared in the post-Super Tuesday brawl:

Donald Trump
Final Grade: B+

The GOP front-runner was clearly painted with the crosshairs of the contest. Rivals and moderators alike came hard at Trump.

The mogul weathered an intense and at times seemingly hostile line of questioning from moderator Chris Wallace on the merits of his plan to reduce the federal deficit. As Trump repeatedly attempted to lay out the need for procurement reform to save big on federal contracts, Wallace interrupted the front-runner with digs at the math not adding up.

Trump Schools Rubio [lz_jwplayer video=”wK2l7ERg” ads=”false”]

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Despite the near-constant onslaught, Trump notably spoke with greater fluency and depth on several issues, including his flagship policy of fixing lopsided trade deals. Trump reminded voters of his populist, American workers-first appeal but also was forced to admit flip-flops on several issues, including newly favoring an increase in the number of legal immigrants through the H1B visa program.

When hit by Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Trump dismissed the dings from “little man” Marco and forcefully came after what he called Rubio’s lack of leadership. But Trump largely declined to engage Cruz in personal digs when hit from the other side of the stage by the Texas senator, indicating the focus of the Trump offensive in the coming days will continue to be on Establishment-favored Rubio.

Sen. Ted Cruz
Final Grade: A-

Cruz came into the debate ready to fight for Trump voters by pushing strong populist lines on rebuilding manufacturing and opportunity for American workers hurt by the polices of Washington.

On the heels of a silly start to the debate with Rubio and Trump talking about hand size, Cruz went for a more serious tone.

“This is not about the insults back and forth between the candidates. This is not about what attacks we can throw at each other,” Cruz said when first brought into the conversation by moderator Megyn Kelly. “This is the people at home who are struggling through seven years of Barack Obama.”

Cruz Takes on Trump [lz_jwplayer video=”ygNXQkws” ads=”false”]

Cruz made his strongest move of any debate yet to seize the issue of Supreme Court justices by invoking his record of fighting conservative cases before the court and tying the issue to that of protecting Second Amendment rights.

“If you care about the Second Amendment, then you need to ask who on this stage do you know will appoint principled constitutionalists to the court and not cut a deal with your Second Amendment rights?” Cruz asked, before lampooning Trump for his past financial support of Democratic politicians.

Compared with the sophomoric digs at Trump from Rubio, Cruz looked very much the part of the serious anti-Trump candidate, which he has tried to own in the days since he out-performed expectations on Super Tuesday.

Whether his strong showing in Detroit will be enough to earn him any upset victories in states voting Saturday remains to be seen — but Cruz has given weight to his argument that he is the best non-Trump candidate.

Sen. Marco Rubio
Final Grade: C

“So if there is anyone who has ever deserved to be attacked that way, it has been Donald Trump, for the way he has treated people in the campaign,” Rubio said early in the night, in what came to define his approach to the contest.

Rubio launched zingers at Trump for most of the night that served primarily to make Cruz look like the more serious of the senatorial contenders.

Rubio was also bested by Trump in several exchanges, including on Trump’s support within the party.

“Two-thirds of the people who have cast a vote in a Republican primary or caucus have voted against you,” Rubio said to Trump. “They do not want you to be our nominee.”

Rubio Talks Trump University [lz_jwplayer video=”TsiCSQUY” ads=”false”]

But Trump was quick to point out the flaws of logic in the line, noting that while he may not yet have a clear majority of GOP voters, he has far more GOP supporters casting votes and in the polls than Rubio.

“I’m at 49 … that would mean that 80 percent of the people don’t dig you,” Trump said, swatting away the canned line from Rubio.

Rubio also stumbled through a question from debate moderator Chris Wallace on how many jobs he has created, in light of his recent assault on Trump’s business record.

The Rubio performance bespoke a candidate stretching to land punches on Trump, which ultimately insured none of the attacks left permanent damage. The tone from Rubio, made no better by the presence of a cold, certainly added fuel to the fire of rival Sen. Ted Cruz’s claim that only he can tangle with Trump and have a chance of winning.

Gov. John Kasich
Final Grade: D

Kasich did what Kasich has always done. Unfortunately for Kasich, that hasn’t worked yet in the 2016 contest.

The Ohio governor dove into policy specifics and the merits of his long resume in government whenever he got time to speak. But with voters frustrated with politics and politicians, the political pedigree Kasich is so fond of pitching is as much a negative as Ted Cruz’s birth in Canada or Marco Rubio’s pro-amnesty past.

Kasich Calls for Common Sense [lz_jwplayer video=”wSwjN3Ia” ads=”false”]

“I’m not biting” Kasich said to his biggest applause of the night when egged on by Chris Wallace to bash Trump’s seriousness on foreign policy. The refusal to join in on the actual fight for the nomination going on stage-right to Kasich sums up his campaign. It has been about an upbeat, policy laden, moderate agenda, which happens to have none of the political teeth necessary to win a modern electoral fight.

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