HOUSTON — Thursday night’s debate in Houston was one of the first times Donald Trump has taken so much heat from both the “choke artist” and the “liar” — his two main rivals, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz.
The conventional wisdom going into the debate had been that Cruz and Rubio would, as they have done for weeks, attack each other. There was some of that, of course, but the real shift was that both candidates turned their sights on Trump — even Rubio, who has barely laid a hand on the frontrunner so far. In turn, Trump unloaded many of his nastiest lines on the others, making for one of the feistiest debates yet. But even the fact of Trump’s target status confirmed his position as the central figure in the campaign, and underscored the position that Cruz and Rubio are in: scrapping desperately to be the last man left standing against him.
Later in the debate, after Cruz questioned his position on Israel, Trump responded with a dismissive précis of the two men standing next to him: “I mean, first of all, this guy is a choke artist, and this guy is a liar,” he said, pointing to both Rubio and Cruz. “Other than that, I rest my case.”
The problem for Trump is that no one was letting him rest his case. Rubio got the ball rolling early, going after Trump for shifting on immigration, for hiring foreign workers illegally for construction projects, and for Trump University, Trump’s for-profit college that was the subject of a lawsuit from former students who said they had been defrauded.
Cruz jumped in later and reinforced Rubio on the foreign workers, saying, “Marco is exactly right that a federal court found Donald guilty of being part of a conspiracy to hire people illegally and entered a $1 million judgment against him.”
Cruz then amplified Rubio’s point about Trump University, saying, “You know, Marco made reference earlier to the litigation against Trump University. It's a fraud case. His lawyers have scheduled the trial for July.”
“I think they both did a pretty good job of tagging the tail on the donkey,” former Texas governor Rick Perry, who has endorsed Cruz, told reporters after the debate. “I think they both did a very good job of tagging Trump as being outside the mainstream of the Republican Party, that’s for sure.”
“I stood in the middle of the stage once. That’s what you get when you stand in the middle of the stage,” Perry said when asked if Cruz and Rubio had worked out anything beforehand with regard to Trump. “I don’t think they called each other and said, ‘I’m wearing a blue tie and you go red and we’re gonna really nail him tonight,’ but when you are the leader and you’re leading the polls and you’re in the middle of the stage, that is exactly what you’re gonna get. I think hooray for that because we’ve got to vet our candidates.”
Trump is a “target-rich environment,” Perry said.
Asked if the two candidates had coordinated beforehand, Rubio adviser Todd Harris told reporters they had not.
“Both Marco and Sen. Cruz went into this debate with similar goals,” Harris said. “The difference is Marco succeeded in his and Sen. Cruz did not.”
Cruz communications adviser Jason Miller, asked the same question, said, “No, I mean for weeks now Donald Trump has been masquerading as a conservative. He’s not a conservative, and tonight he got called out for it.”
“Trump lost a lot of juice tonight,” Miller said.
The problem with all this is that it may be simply too late to stop Trump. He is heading into this weekend having won three of the four early primary states and primed to clean up on Super Tuesday. Trump is the likely nominee, and both Cruz and Rubio are trying to be the last man standing against him — but by the time there is a last man standing against him, the moment where that mattered may have passed.
And though he brawled with both men onstage, Trump seemed unsurprised by his rivals’ attacks after the debate.
“I knew they’d be attacking me,” he told reporters. “They had no choice, they’re so far behind they really had no choice.”
“It’s not looking good,” Trump said when asked if he would consider any of the candidates on stage as his running mate. “It’s not looking too good.”