It took eight months and three electoral losses in a row, but the Republican presidential field finally woke up and realized Donald Trump was not going to defeat himself.
Thursday’s CNN-Telemundo debate was the first time Sens. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, who have savaged each other in the last several meetings, put aside their differences and focused 100 percent of their fire on Trump.
Rubio in particular had avoided provoking Trump in recent weeks, but going on the attack in the CNN forum seemed to breathe new life into his debating style. He seemed more confident and quick on his feet than usual and was never too rattled by Trump’s counterattacks. Cruz had fewer standout moments but prosecuted his case consistently, as well.
Trump, for his part, never seemed to lose his cool and dished out his own steady stream of punishment. So far, even the most contentious debates have failed to drag down his support, so it’s an open question whether Cruz and Rubio’s strong performances did any damage before the crucial March 1 Super Tuesday contests.
By dropping so many attacks at once, Rubio and Cruz also make it difficult to focus on any one issue in four days, giving Trump an opportunity to regain control of the conversation. We’ll never know what might have happened if they had doled out bits of opposition research over months and months instead and litigated each topic one at a time.
Here’s a sampling of the many angles that Trump’s two main challengers used against him.
Rubio and Cruz both tried to undermine Trump’s immigration position by accusing him of cynically embracing the issue to attract voters.
Rubio noted that Trump had blamed Mitt Romney’s “self-deportation” position for losing him the election in 2012 by turning off Latino voters before running on mass deportation.
He also accused Trump of personal hypocrisy, citing a New York Times investigation that day that found Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort had turned down hundreds of American job applicants while applying to bring in foreign workers instead.
Trump claimed they were seasonal jobs that were difficult to fill and seemed to misunderstand the reference to his old position on Romney.
Rubio asked the audience to Google an old lawsuit settled in 1999 in which undocumented Polish workers alleged that Trump’s company had withheld wages while threatening them with deportation.
“I'm the only one on the stage that's hired people,” Trump shot back. “You haven't hired anybody.
He also mentioned that Trump’s own branded clothing lines were made abroad even as Trump decried businesses moving manufacturing jobs to China and Mexico.
“I don't understand, because your ties and the clothes you make [are] made in Mexico and in China,” Rubio said. “So you're going to be starting a trade war against your own ties and your own suits."
Cruz’s favorite line of attack was Trump’s long history of donating to Democrats, which Cruz said proved the real estate mogul was either a closet liberal or insufficiently dedicated to conservatism.
“If you look at the eight members of the Gang of Eight, Donald gave over $50,000 to three Democrats and two Republicans,” Cruz said. “When you're funding open border politicians, you shouldn't be surprised when they fight for open borders.”
Trump said he had “an amazing relationship with politicians” and said Cruz’s inability to work with senators was a liability.
“Here’s the guy that inherited $200 million,” Rubio said. “If he hadn’t inherited $200 million, you know where he’d be right now? Selling watches in Manhattan.”
“I took $1 million and I turned it into $10 billion,” Trump responded.
“Better release your tax returns so we can see how much money he made,” Rubio shot back.
Both Cruz and Rubio also brought up Trump University, a defunct program being sued by former students who say they spent tens of thousands of dollars on it and received little more than an “infomercial.”
“You lied to the students at Trump University,” Rubio said.
Cruz noted that the case was scheduled to go to trial in the spring, making it a general election liability.
“[Trump] on the stand in court, being cross-examined about whether he committed fraud -- you don't think the mainstream media will go crazy on that?” Cruz said.
Trump said he could settle the case if he wanted to, but didn’t on “principle” because the program was “fantastic.”
Total policy cluelessness
Rubio and Cruz engaged Trump in a debate over health care policy that was partly about his praise for single-payer health care and the Obamacare mandate that everyone carry insurance, but also about Trump’s inch-deep understanding of the issue.
Cruz brought up Trump’s past calls for universal health coverage and his praise for single-payer health care in Canada and Scotland.
Trump denied he was for “socialized medicine,” but Rubio pounced on his vague and repeated responses about solving all America’s health woes by allowing insurance companies to sell policies across state lines (something most Republicans favor).
“I see him repeat himself every night, he says five things: Everyone's dumb; he's going to make America great again; we’re going to win, win, win; he’s winning in the polls; and the lines around the state,” Rubio said.
Mitt Romney made news this week challenging Donald Trump to release years of tax returns (an issue that was a liability for Romney in 2012) because the former Republican nominee thought there was a “bombshell” in them.
Trump, who has previously said he would release his returns, said he couldn’t do it because he was currently facing an audit. Rubio and Cruz both said they would release their own returns soon and pushed Trump on the issue.
“He doesn't want to do it, because presumably, there's something in there that is bad,” Cruz said. “If there’s nothing, release them tomorrow.”
Cruz pointed out that Trump trails Hillary Clinton in most national polls and argued that Trump’s previous donations to the Democratic candidate would insulate her from attacks.
“He can't prosecute the case against Hillary, and we can't risk another four years of these failed Obama policies by nominating someone who loses to Hillary Clinton in November,” Cruz said.
“I sort of have to laugh when Ted makes a big deal out of the fact that he's doing well in the polls,” Trump shot back. “I'm beating him in virtually every poll.”
Cruz and Rubio both went after Trump for saying he would be a “neutral guy” in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“Both Donald and Hillary Clinton want to be neutral, to use Donald's word, between Israel and the Palestinians,” Cruz said.
“The position you've taken is an anti-Israel position,” Rubio said of Trump. “And here's why: Because you cannot be an honest broker in a dispute between two sides in which one of the sides is constantly acting in bad faith.”
Trump said he had a “great relationship” with Israel and was a “strong supporter” who would seek to find a peace deal.
Cruz said Rubio and Trump “agreed with the Obama/Clinton policy of toppling the government in Libya,” whereas he favored avoiding the conflict in the hopes then-dictator Muammar Gaddafi would maintain power and prevent terrorism from taking root.
“He said I was in favor of Libya? I never discussed that subject,” Trump said.
This was not true. Trump came out in favor of military action against Gaddafi in 2011, saying the US should “immediately go into Libya, knock this guy out very quickly, very surgically, very effectively, and save the lives.”