Rubio (finally) attacks Trump. Will that matter?

At Thursday's debate, Senators Rubio and Cruz seemed newly willing to tangle directly with Donald Trump. Plus, 'the fruit salad of our lives.'

Gary Coronado/Houston Chronicle/AP
Republican presidential candidates, Sen. Marco Rubio, (R) of Florida, left, and businessman Donald Trump argue during the Republican presidential primary debate at the University of Houston Thursday in Texas.

Marco Rubio attacked Donald Trump and lived. Mr. Trump fumed but didn’t blow up. Ted Cruz was smooth with his own anti-Trump snipes. John Kasich repeated his emotional appeal to togetherness.

Ben Carson had fruit salad, describing humans’ experience with an oddly endearing metaphor, “The fruit salad of their lives.”

That about sums up the latest Republican presidential debate, held Thursday night in Houston. With Trump continuing to build a delegate lead, and Super Tuesday days ahead, Senators Rubio and Cruz needed to do something to change the dynamic of the race, and fast. Our snap reaction was that didn’t happen. But if 2016 has taught us anything, it is that voters react unpredictably to events in the race. The citizens of Texas, Georgia, and a broad swath of other mostly Southern states will answer this question on March 1 with their ballots.

Here’s a candidate-by-candidate look at last night’s debate wrangle:

Marco Rubio. Rubio advisers said beforehand that they would pass on attacking Trump. That was a fairly obvious head fake. Rubio stands alone as Trump’s biggest rival, and he has to address the front-runner directly. He did that on Thursday, aggressively taunting Trump about hiring immigrants as service workers in his hotels, instead of American citizens; manufacturing Trump-branded clothes overseas (“Make them in America!” he shouted over Trump at one point); and his meandering proscriptions for replacing Obamacare.

“What is your plan, Mr. Trump? What is your plan on health care?” Rubio interjected at one point.

Donald Trump. Trump at times looked annoyed by Rubio and Cruz’s attacks. Policy details are his weak point and he appeared uninterested in countering Rubio on the specifics of such thing as his (Trump’s) support for keeping the Obamacare provision requiring insurers to cover preexisting health conditions. Volume is not a Trumpian problem, however, and every time a rival began to build a critique Trump would turn up the dial, deny any of that was a problem, and say “you’re wrong,” or “you’re a liar.”

Trump just seems unfazed by personal attacks that might cause someone else to redden and explode.

“This is a lot of fun up here, I have to tell you,” he said at one point.

Ted Cruz. If Rubio led the charge against Trump, Cruz was right behind him, holding Rubio’s coat and getting in a few jabs of his own. But at this point, he needs to be more than a third party, given Rubio’s rise in the polls. He seemed to recognize that later in the debate and mounted a sustained explanation of why Trump, in his view, isn’t a real conservative. Trump said it was all a lie and demanded an apology.

“I will not apologize for one minute for defending the Constitution,” said Cruz, in maybe his best moment.

John Kasich. Ohio Gov. Kasich is facing increasing pressure to drop out of the race and clear the anti-Trump path for Rubio. This debate won’t cause that pressure to lessen. Kasich got only two questions in the first hour or so of the debate and seemed content to let the top three combatants slug things out.

As the debate progressed Governor Kasich came back into the conversation, though, and in the context of the “Liar!” shouts seemed as substantive as a one-man think tank. He dwelt at length on the challenges of handling an aggressive, dangerous one-man regime – North Korea, where leader Kim Jong-un appears to rule by fear and fiat.

Regime change might be an option in North Korea, Kasich said.

“Perhaps the Chinese can actually accomplish that with this man who is now currently the leader, but the fact is we have to bring everything to bear,” Kasich said.

Ben Carson. In the latte-charged world of Republican debates, Dr. Carson can appear sleepy. That was again the case on Thursday night. Voters may respond to this kind of demeanor more kindly than do pundits. Carson’s poll numbers bumped upward after the first few candidate forums.

But that was a long time ago. At this point Carson’s candidacy seems destined for an asterisk. He did get off some of the night’s best individual comments, though. The aforementioned “fruit salad” line struck a social media chord. “THE FRUIT SALAD OF OUR LIVES” became a trending topic on Twitter as the night wore on. And at one point Carson, tired of being ignored, issued a plaintive cry for attention.

“Can somebody attack me please?” he said.

Nobody did.

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