Update: 7:55 p.m. PST: Another debate down. This one is likely to give Marco Rubio a sizable boost from the Republican Party’s establishment ranks, which have already been rallying around the junior senator from Florida. Donald Trump wobbled a bit under pressure from moderators Hugh Hewitt and Maria Celeste Arraras, with assists from Rubio.

Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton’s name came up far fewer times than might be expected at such a high-stakes, pre-Super Tuesday moment in the 2016 cycle. Still, true to form, Trump managed to insult the former secretary of state in an intimate manner, peering behind the Clintons’ closed doors after the last Democratic debate and claiming, “Believe me, they had a rough weekend between them—Bill and Hillary.” With regard to Hillary Clinton, Trump promised the audience, “I haven’t even started with her.”

Sen. Ted Cruz never fully took control in his home state of Texas. He weathered repeated onslaughts by Trump, who resorted to his customary bullying tactics. “This guy’s a choke artist, and this guy’s a liar,” he said of Rubio and Cruz respectively, when others—including moderators—seemed to gain traction, but Cruz ultimately couldn’t catch Rubio.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich made a couple of reasonable points in the foreign policy portion of the evening, refusing to be led by moderator Wolf Blitzer’s line of questioning about possible military action against North Korea or to sacrifice necessary caution in order to add sensational grist to the media mill.

Ben Carson, the retired surgeon who once claimed the No. 2 spot in the Republican ranks, seemed as though he had some other motivation besides running for president to still be campaigning. His more animated moments consisted of him complaining that he was being ignored. In one moment of exasperation and questionable judgment, he joked, “Can someone attack me, please?”

In closing, here’s one of a handful of memorable quotes from Rubio, who suddenly was willing to take income inequality into account for the purpose of zinging Trump: “Here’s the guy that inherited $200 million. If he hadn’t inherited $200 million, you know where Donald Trump would be right now? Selling watches in Manhattan.” * * *

Update: 6:57 p.m. PST: Next came a set of probing questions and attacks—depending on who was doing the talking—generally seeking to pin down Trump and a diplomatic Kasich and force them to flash their conservative credentials on issues close to Republicans’ hearts. Rubio seized momentary control in a rat-a-tat series of attacks that simultaneously painted Trump as a hypocrite and made light of Rubio’s prior debate stumbles.

The memory of the recently deceased Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was reverently invoked for the occasion, and the five men on stage took turns cozying up to him in absentia. Even the mellow Carson perked up to praise Scalia’s “tremendous wit and intellect.”

Back to credentialing. Arraras, representing Telemundo, posed to Trump the question of whether conservative Latino voters could ever warm to him considering how he blew out of the gates last June by insulting the entire country of Mexico. “Wouldn’t it make you unelectable?” she asked.

“First of all, I don’t believe anything that Telemundo says,” Trump responded. Arraras had done her homework, retorting, “For the record, you have said publicly that you love Telemundo in the past.” Without a visible suggestion of irony but with a trace of disdain, Trump said, “I love them—I love them.”

Trump did go on to say something that rang true, though: “We are building a new Republican Party.”

Conservative radio show host Hewitt pressed Trump about his ability to enshrine right-wing voters’ religious rights. Hewitt hit Kasich with a similar query. Both men answered passably, if blandly.

But the biggest moment of the second hour, as well as of the 10th debate itself, took place when Rubio rhetorically cornered Trump. The billionaire developer set himself up by referencing Rubio’s “meltdown” during the New Hampshire episode of this endless series of televised pantomimes of deliberative democracy. Rubio flipped the script on Trump, reframing a moment from that debate—one in which Rubio, to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s relish, got stuck in a speech loop.

This time, Rubio played Christie’s role when Trump talked in circles during an exchange about Obamacare. “Now he’s repeating himself,” Rubio said. “No, I’m not—no, no, no, no,” Trump said. “I don’t repeat myself. I don’t repeat myself,” he added, repeating himself. * * *

Update: 6:27 p.m. PST: Cruz may have wanted to own Texas, but Trump made a play to own the immigration issue. Commending Blitzer’s choice of topics, Trump boasted that the problem wouldn’t be a campaign talking point if he hadn’t pointed it out first. “It wouldn’t be a big subject,” he said.

The GOP front-runner was on the offensive, clearly aware of how his recent wins in Nevada and South Carolina will ratchet up his competitors’ shared sense of urgency to bring him down. He immediately went after Cruz and Rubio over their business skills. “I’m the only person on stage who’s hired people,” Trump claimed.

Cruz was slow to deflect strikes by Trump, who landed a reverberating hit by telling the Texas senator, “You don’t have the endorsement of one Republican senator, and you work with these people—you ought to be ashamed of yourself.” Sensing his opening, Trump piled on, charging that Cruz borrowed money without interest from Citibank and Goldman Sachs to fund his campaign.

Rubio was more than ready for the incoming aggression. He responded by blasting Trump for the real estate tycoon’s use of undocumented laborers to build his properties, for lawsuits targeting Trump’s Trump University venture, and for going bankrupt, which elicited screams from the crowd. Making a pointed tie-in to the immigration question, Rubio said, “If he builds the wall like he built Trump Towers, he will be using a heck of a lot of illegal immigrant labor.”

Trump was also put on the spot by a question from Blitzer about former Mexican President Vicente Fox’s heated quote from earlier Thursday about how he wouldn’t pay for the “f**king wall” that Trump famously claimed he would build along the U.S.-Mexico border on Mexico’s dime.

Fighting fire with Twitter-ready fire, Trump said, “The wall just got 10 feet taller, believe me.” * * *

Update: 5:55 p.m. PST: The debate setting at the University of Houston’s Moores School of Music Opera House was somehow fitting, given how heavily campaign press coverage has borrowed from the theater review genre.

The first dramatic flourish came in the form of a surprise cameo by former President George H.W. Bush, accompanied by onetime first lady Barbara Bush. Their presence drew an enthusiastic response from the crowd and underscored the absence of their son Jeb from a GOP debate for the first time this election season.

Opening remarks offered hints at how each presidential hopeful was looking to distinguish himself. The following is a condensed version of the candidates’ first pitch:

Carson: America’s going down in flames—and guys, let’s play nice.

Kasich: America’s great, kids!

Rubio: I’m baby Reagan.

Cruz: Texas is mine.

Trump: America has become a nation of losers. * * *

Thursday night’s 10th GOP presidential debate takes place in Houston—home turf for contentious contender Cruz. Whether that will translate to his advantage seems a tad unlikely given the relentless momentum of front-runner Trump, who looks poised to derail the opposition on Super Tuesday.

Locomotive metaphors aside, Trump is the one to beat, and the other four candidates—Cruz, Rubio, Kasich and Carson—who will share CNN’s stage at the University of Houston know it all too well.

So, apparently, do mainstream sources like The Washington Post, judging by the pull-no-punches tone of conservative columnist Ilya Somin’s pre-debate piece, entitled “Time to unite against Trump”:

I am not going to go over all the reasons why Trump would be a horrible nominee in detail. That has been done already by others, such as Peter Wehner, and the participants in the National Review symposium on Trump.

I will only highlight a few of The Donald’s lowlights. Trump openly advocates massacring innocent civilians. He wants to use bogus lawsuits and FCC censorship to suppress the speech of his critics, and recently pined for the “old days” when his supporters would have been allowed to beat protestors to the point where they “have to carried out on a stretcher.” He has lobbied for the government to condemn a widow’s home so he could use it to build a casino parking lot. He has utter contempt for constitutional property rights, and other constitutional limitations on government power. He wants to deport millions of people to lives of Third World poverty and oppression, including hundreds of thousands of children born in the United States, who have never known any other home. And he would engage in massive discrimination on the basis of religion.

A man who advocates such things must not be elected president of the most powerful nation in the world, and he must not be allowed to become the nominee of a major party. Blocking him is far more important than ensuring the victory of any one other candidate that we might happen to prefer. The differences between the other viable candidates are modest compared to the evil represented by Trump. Trump [may] not really believe or want to act on some rhetoric. But it would be dangerous to take that chance.

Somin’s tone echoes a conservative refrain reaching a panicked crescendo, as indicated by the first paragraph from his column excerpt.

Here’s Linda Feldmann of the Christian Science Monitor to further alarm the anti-Trump set with some straight talk about Super Tuesday, somewhat mitigated by strategic tips:

Though only 5 percent of convention delegates have been allocated, that math will change quickly come March 1, Super Tuesday, with more than 10 states voting and one-quarter of GOP delegates at stake. Voters like to back a winner, and the more Trump wins—now three contests in a row—the more likely he is to win in the future.

“If one of the two senators wants to be the nominee, they have to put their squabbling aside and start focusing on taking down Trump,” says Republican strategist Ford O’Connell. “I expect to see a glimpse of that in Houston at the debate on Thursday.”

The question, then, is how they might do that. Some Republicans suggest that to beat Trump, you have to think like Trump: Attack him on his weaknesses.

And Trump has plenty, they say. Start with his thin skin, on display in the last Republican debate, when Jeb Bush went after him over eminent domain and for blaming his brother on the 9/11 attacks. The audience booed Trump, and he lashed out.

But it’s not all about the biggest gorilla in the room. NBC News also focused on the jostling between Cruz and Rubio for the runner-up position:

The main battle for “last Trump alternative standing” is between Rubio and Cruz, who finished neck-and-neck in South Carolina and Nevada.

Both of them need to drag Trump down, but so far they’ve been more focused on knocking each other out in order to consolidate conservative support. Cruz has tried to remind voters that Rubio co-authored the bipartisan immigration bill that would have put millions of undocumented immigrants on a path to citizenship.

Rubio has tried to portray Cruz as weak on defense over his vote for a budget that would have cut military spending. He’s also gained some traction accusing Cruz of dirty tactics—Cruz fired his national spokesman this week after he tweeted a video falsely claiming Rubio disparaged the Bible.

Neither of them is in great shape right now. Rubio has yet to show he can win a state, and Trump could cut off Cruz’s path to the nomination if the billionaire real estate developer’s South Carolina performance translates to success in the southern states voting on March 1.

Finally, the Los Angeles Times offered a rundown of four things to watch for during the debate.

Once again, Truthdig staffers will be live-blogging the 10th debate within this same story page, with updates posted in a most-recent-first format. Stay tuned.

–Posted by Kasia Anderson


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