Rubio and Trump sparring at Republican debate in Houston Texas

Images courtesy of CNN

Republicans Spar In Wild Pre-Super Tuesday Debate

| published February 26, 2016 |

By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor


South Carolina came and went; Nevada came and went. And then there were still five, and there was Houston.

In a Republican nomination fight shorn of one-time front-runner Jeb Bush, whose poor showing in South Carolina forced him to acknowledge his message was not resonating in a field dominated by businessman Donald Trump, the five remaining GOP candidates for President faced off in what may have been the final debate of the year, the tenth debate so far for Republicans in this election cycle.

The debate, hosted by CNN and aired live to what turned out to be high television ratings, also proved to be the most explosive and unpredictable forum yet. For front-runner Trump, the billionaire whose robust showing in Nevada confounded his critics and proved that he has the muscle to win over nearly every segment of the electorate, the debate was an opportunity to bring rapid closure to his fight for the Republican nomination. Trump now leads in the all-important delegate count, and after the votes are counted on Super Tuesday, he may be unstoppable.

For the second place competitors, Florida Senator Marco Rubio and Texas Senator Ted Cruz, the debate may very well have been a battle for long-term survival. Cruz and Rubio have been locked for weeks in an intense battle to control the high ground in the critical second place slot—a position which has been widely seen as the place to be when (and if) GOP voters defect from Trump and choose instead a candidate from a more traditional place in the party. Instead, the two have effectively divided—at times deeply, it would seem—the loyalty of the anti-Trump voters.

Thus the stakes were high for both in the final outcome of Thursday’s forum. Still, Rubio and Cruz each attempted during the debate to land some of their direct, hardest hitting punches on Trump, challenging him on his business record and his past statements, charging him with hiring illegal immigrants, demanding that he release his tax records, and questioning his commitment to conservative values. These charges often sparked quick reactions by the bombastic Trump.

Some of the most intense exchanges were between Rubio and Trump, as Rubio mocked the billionaire for what Rubio says is a shallow, poor understanding of some of the fundamental issues facing Americans, and Trump—in retaliation—mocked Rubio’s real estate deals, sweatiness and inability to win a single state or caucus.

Most analysts say that Rubio, who has held his direct fire in many previous debates—thus avoiding getting kicked and slammed by Trump’s frequent attacks and insults on other fellow candidates—unloaded on Trump with many of the night’s most memorable jabs, punches and counter-punches. The newly-aggressive Rubio also sparked some of the heaviest applause from the live audience in Houston, and, if applause is any measure of who “won” or “lost” a debate, may have emerged the moral victor in a fight between Trump and several rivals.

Cruz, too, sparred heatedly with Trump in numerous exchanges in which—like the bitter interactions between Rubio and Trump—both candidates attempted to talk over each other, causing the moderators to lose control of the room, and often leaving the fourth and fifth candidates in the room (retired neurosurgeon and author Dr. Ben Carson, and Ohio Governor John Kasich) unable to get a word in edgewise. The exchanges were frequently so personal in nature and so heated that it became difficult, under the rules established by CNN and the RNC, for some back-and-forth confrontations to come to a conclusion, as each candidate demanded time to offer a retort or rebuttal to the comments of the other candidate.
Wolf Blitzer mediator at CNN Republican debate in Houston Texas

Images courtesy of CNN

Though the first few minutes of the debate seemed to start with relative calm and good behavior, the forum soon spiraled out of control. CNN moderator Wolf Blitzer raised what was arguably the hottest of the hot button issues at the very start when the question of immigration came up. It turned out to be a topic which sparked a rapid escalation of tensions and emotions, and then spawned a full 55 minutes of sometimes contentious debate over immigrants, jobs, border security, citizenship, and proposals to build a wall along the long border between the U.S. and Mexico.

In a change of pace, Rubio and Cruz backed off their often intense and complex arguments and accusations about each other, and chose instead to concentrate their heaviest ordnance on Trump.

Asked about the recent statements by several top Mexican officials and former officials of Mexico City who have said that Mexico will have no part in paying for the construction of a multi-billion dollar border wall, Trump said not only would Mexico pay for the wall, but that the wall “just got ten feet taller.” Trump also admonished a former President of Mexico, Vincente Fox, who used the F-word in describing his disgust with Trump’s proposal that Mexico City foot the bill. Trump said that Fox owes Trump and the American people an apology.

When Blitzer pressed Trump on the matter—asking how he intended to force Mexico to pay for the wall—Trump said that if necessary he would extract the cost by squeezing Mexico on trade, for Trump explained there was a huge imbalance. Trump also indicated he would consider extracting additional tariffs and taxes from companies which move U.S. jobs south of the border, an additional stream of revenue which could be used to help pay for the construction of the wall. Trump also touted his negotiating strengths, suggesting that he would be able to wheel and deal appropriately with Mexico when the time comes.

The topic of immigration also sparked questions about Trump’s oft-cited popularity with Latinos, a group once thought to hold Trump in disregard for his past statements on Mexican immigration and Hispanics. Entrance and exit polling in Nevada showed surprisingly strong support for Trump by those who identified themselves as Latino, or of Hispanic descent. When Telemundo’s Maria Celeste Arraras attempted to describe the results of those entrance and exit polls as “aberrant” and unreflective of the true antipathy of Latinos toward Trump, the billionaire was having none of it, insisting that several national polls were also showing Latino support growing for his candidacy. When she insisted that it came from reliable data culled from Telemundo’s own metrics, Trump interjected “no one believes a word of anything Telemundo says anyway.”

The candidates also sparred intensely over the Affordable Care Act and health care—and the relative costs of various plans—which also gave Rubio an opportunity to blast Trump for having little, if any, clear understanding of how health care works. When Trump insisted several times that his health care plan would be effective and bring about cost savings through better geographical competition, the elimination of state lines, Rubio in effect accused Trump of being a one trick pony on health care ideas. Rubio mocked Trump for constantly repeating the same talking point in speeches and debates.

“What is your plan?” Rubio asked. “What is your plan on health care? Your only thing is to get rid of the lines around the states!”

This sparked one of the most heated exchanges, and prompted Trump to try to turn the exchange to his advantage.

“I watched him melt down two weeks ago with Chris Christie,” Trump said, in reference to a debate in which Rubio seemed to be repeating the same lines about President Obama.

“I don’t repeat myself…I don’t repeat myself…I don’t,” Trump said with apparent irony.

“You don’t repeat yourself?” Rubio demanded.

“Here’s the guy that repeats himself,” Trump snapped back.

“You repeat yourself every day,” Rubio insisted.

“Talk about repeating!” Trump said, “I watched him repeat himself five times four weeks ago.”

“I saw you repeat yourself five seconds ago,” Rubio retorted. The response brought the house down, and generated the heaviest applause and sustained cheers of the night.

The exchange led to a prolonged battle between Trump and Rubio as each tried to take control of the narrative. It was a loud and boisterous scenario which repeated itself numerous times during the long evening. Later in the debate, a similar fracas erupted only after Cruz demanded an opportunity to “respond to being called a liar” by Trump. Blitzer, who was weary of the intense cross-talk and shouting between candidates—and seemed ready to move on to a new topic—yielded reluctantly to Cruz’s demand. Blitzer no doubt regretted the decision, as the entire follow-up rapidly deteriorated into an even more chaotic exchange in which neither candidate was willing to stop talking and as the dog fight became even bloodier.

For much of the debate, the intensity between Trump, Rubio and Cruz resulted in near chaos, with candidates frequently talking over one another and with the moderators largely unable to rein in each melee as it unfolded. Senior moderator Blitzer attempted on many occasions to bring it under control, imploring the candidates to speak one at a time and refrain from the multiple layers of interruptions. On multiple occasions Blitzer also had to remind the candidates that they had all agree to the ground rules in advance.

Some political analysts wondered if CNN had done the right thing by allowing so much freewheeling interaction between the candidates, questioning the apparent policy of lighting fires, backing off until things got out of control, then attempting to bring the fires back under control only after emotions were running high and the candidates were shouting over each other. Later, in the post-debate discussions, Blitzer and the other moderators defended their awkward position vis-a-vie the candidates, explaining that the strategy was necessary to let the others attempt to challenge Trump on some of his most cherished and/or sensitive positions, but lamenting the fact that the candidates seemed unwilling to stop interrupting each other so the audience could hear what was being said. The bell used to remind candidates that their speaking time had ended became at first pointless, and later in the debate its ringing seemed even darkly humorous as the combatants sparred intensely and often far beyond the allotted time limit.

The effect, not surprisingly, often left the genteel Dr. Carson and the genial Gov. Kasich accepting what amounted to the short end of the stick. Carson even quipped at several points, demanding to be allowed to use all his time when the moderators seemed ready to move on to the next topic, and jokingly asking the three main combatants to “attack” him verbally so he would be entitled to a 30 second response. Though he was offered many choice opportunities to attack his opponents, Kasich steadfastly refused to take the bait, preferring instead his long-held tack of talking up his own record as governor, and reminding voters of his deep philosophical connections to the legacies of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Carson at times seemed overmatched by the shrill intensity offered by the others on the stage.

Several exchanges even resulted in the candidates in effect co-opting the role of emcee from Blitzer and others, including one sparring match in which Cruz effectively took over the narrative, asking Trump directly about his health care plans, which Cruz says amounts to socialized medicine. Cruz tossed out true-false questions to Trump, then asked more questions (“Who pays for it?” and “How do you explain your plan?”)

In CNN’s defense, the night was clearly preordained as an epic battle between Trump and his two closest rivals, and most political analysts had already predicted that sparks would fly as both Cruz and Rubio sought to land solid hits and challenge Trump’s seemingly rapid ascendancy.

The debate left Rubio riding high on most scorecards, and left Trump seemingly bruised and stung after being attacked brutally from multiple sides. The debate also may have confirmed the seemingly insurmountable challenges now facing Dr. Carson and Gov. Kasich, neither of whom had much opportunity to shine in a debate dominated by theatrics, sarcasm, squabbling and shouting.

Rubio was the overnight star, and received much praise from the gaggle of establishment GOP figures and party regulars who have migrated en masse to his candidacy in the ten days since Jeb Bush withdrew from the race (Rubio picked up a string of major endorsements last week and this week, including those of Nikki Haley, Mitt Romney, Bob Dole, Rick Santorum, Tim Pawlenty, Orrin Hatch, Thom Tillis, and actor Donnie Walberg). In the Thursday night debate, Rubio may have also achieved the all-important edge over Ted Cruz necessary to blunt the other second place challenger and channel what remains of the anti-Trump forces into his corner.

One setback for Rubio, however, came quickly and before noon the next day. At a rally in Texas, Trump was introduced by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, another former rival for the nomination, who announced on Friday that he was now supporting Trump. Christie, a central figure within the GOP “establishment” and a one-time presumed front runner for President himself, may now be the first of many Republican heavyweights who are forced to find acceptance in Trump as party nominee.

Rubio's moment to bask in the glory of his debate performance may be short-lived. New polls by several polling organizations still shows Trump leading him nationally among Republican voters, and in several Super Tuesday states; more ominously still, Rubio faces a double-digit deficit in his home state of Florida, where Trump currently maintains a 20 point lead over Rubio, with Cruz a distant third.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Clinton, Trump Have Wide Paths to Nomination; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; February 23, 2016.

Trump Takes Big Win in Nevada; Rubio, Cruz Battle for Second; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; February 24, 2016.