There were fireworks galore when the Republican presidential candidates took to the stage on Thursday night for their final clash before Super Tuesday.
Front-runner Donald TrumpDonald TrumpHillicon Valley — Presented by Xerox — Twitter's algorithm boosts right-leaning content, internal study finds Ohio Democrat calls Vance an 'ass----' over Baldwin tweet Matt Taibbi says Trump's rhetoric caused public perception of US intelligence services to shift MORE came to the CNN debate in Houston knowing that he would be in good shape for the dozen GOP contests on March 1 unless one of his most serious rivals — Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioSenate GOP campaign arm outraises Democratic counterpart in September House passes bills to secure telecommunications infrastructure Senators call for answers from US firm over reported use of forced Uyghur labor in China MORE or Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzOvernight Health Care — Presented by Carequest — Colin Powell's death highlights risks for immunocompromised The Senate confirmation process is broken — Senate Democrats can fix it Australian politician on Cruz, vaccines: 'We don't need your lectures, thanks mate' MORE — was able to fundamentally reshape the trajectory of the race.
Did Trump continue his progress toward the nomination, or did anyone knock him off-course?
Businessman Donald Trump
Trump’s performance on Thursday night would not have won him first place in a debating championship. But that hardly matters. The point of the exercise is to win elections — and, by that measure, the billionaire did all he needed to do.
This was a less volatile Trump than was seen at the GOP debate just before the Republican primary in South Carolina. Facing even fiercer attacks from Rubio and Cruz this time, he took some punches but was never put on the canvas, much less knocked out.
In fact, Trump got off some decent shots of his own, painting his verbal assailants as practitioners of politics-as-usual. Twice in the debate, he enunciated the central theme of his candidacy — that conventional politicians are “all talk, no action.”
When Rubio accused him of having hired people who were not legally entitled to work, the businessman insisted that he at least had a record of employing people and building a business.
There were also signs of Trump turning his gaze toward a general election audience. He held fast to his view that Planned Parenthood does good work in some areas of women’s health; he asserted that he had the capacity to expand the GOP’s appeal; and he made a vigorous attack on the greed of health insurance companies.
Trump had some shakier moments for sure, such as when Rubio mocked him for repeating himself and failing to offer specifics on healthcare. The real estate mogul also seemed to invite ridicule when he noted, as part of an argument that he could make peace in the Middle East, that he had once been grand marshal of New York’s Israel Day Parade.
But overall this was another night when Trump was the dominant figure, swatting away many attacks.
He left the stage as he entered it: the clear favorite to become the Republican nominee.
Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.)
Rubio was Trump’s most effective challenger on Thursday night — something of a surprise, given that Cruz, a one-time champion debater, was enjoying home-field advantage in Houston.
The Florida senator was the prime mover against Trump, especially in the debate’s vital opening stages. He harried the New York tycoon all while wearing a broad smile, and at times seemed to irk Trump.
His best moment — and perhaps the most memorable clash in the whole debate — came when Trump sought to remind viewers of the Floridian’s embarrassing repetitiousness during a debate before the New Hampshire primary.
“I watched him repeat himself five times four weeks ago,” Trump said.
“I saw you repeat yourself five times five minutes ago,” Rubio responded to cheers. He expanded that into an attack that Trump’s candidacy is built around a small number of vague sound bites.
Rubio was not as commanding a presence in the second half of the debate, and doubts remain over whether he will convert a strong debate performance into votes — especially on Super Tuesday, when he is not projected to win a single state.
Still, Rubio had a better night than Cruz, seizing his chance to paint himself as Trump’s prime rival.
Sen. Ted Cruz (Texas)
Cruz suffered no real disasters but it was an underwhelming performance from the Texan just when he needed something to give his campaign new vigor.
He was bested by Rubio and allowed himself to be sidelined for much of the first half of the two-hour-plus encounter.
Cruz also came off the worse in one of the debate’s more rambunctious exchanges, when Trump lambasted him as “the basket case.” That might not be pretty but, as is often the case with Trump’s verbal darts, it hit an opponent on their weak spot. The idea that the senator is too much of an ideologue and too lacking in personal charm to be an effective candidate is widely held in Republican circles.
Cruz made some decent attacks, suggesting, for example, that Trump’s past positions on healthcare were too liberal for a Republican electorate.
Overall, though, it was an unmemorable night for Cruz — not good enough in his hometown with Super Tuesday looming.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich
Kasich is a very different character than Cruz but his performance on Thursday had a similarity to the Texan’s: it was competent but insufficient for his electoral purposes.
The Ohio governor has identified his niche in the race: he casts himself as a positive problem-solver every chance he gets. He derided the idea of deporting million of illegal immigrants with a straightforward plea to “be practical.” On healthcare, he gave the kind of detail-heavy answer that Trump abjures.
The problem for Kasich was not anything he did wrong. It’s the simple fact that his standing in the race is declining as his surprise second-place showing in the New Hampshire primary passes out of view in the rearview mirror.
Rubio’s strong performance further narrows Kasich’s already-narrow path forward.
Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson
Carson’s most memorable moment in the debate, by far, was when he said that, as president, he would choose a Supreme Court nominee by an unusual criterion.
“The fruit salad of their life is what I will look at,” he said.
The head-scratching remark drew mirth on social media. But that tells its own story about another meandering debate performance from a candidate who ceased to be relevant to the presidential race a long time ago.