Critic's Notebook: Rubio, Cruz Pummel Trump in GOP Debate Brawl

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Rubio and Cruz battered, but didn't beat, the Donald in their desperate attempt to take down the frontrunner. And Carson was there. I think.

The Republican presidential candidates were packing heat and unloading plenty of firepower — of the verbal variety, at least — in their Texas debate, the tenth so far and the last before next week's Super Tuesday primaries. Donald Trump, standing center stage as usual, took blow after blow from the two men on either side of him, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz. The pummeling was so merciless that, at times, it felt like the event didn't need a moderator but rather a WWF referee.

Oh, John Kasich and Ben Carson were there, too.

Trump, of course, gave back as much as he got, responding to each attack with sneers and insults that naturally gave the two men the opportunity to respond since they had been named. It became a vicious circle, allowing virtually no chance for Carson and Kasich to get in on the action.

"Can somebody attack me please?" Carson finally pleaded, only half-jokingly.

(Why Carson is remaining in the race at this point is a mystery. He's like the guest at a party who falls asleep and everyone is too afraid to wake him up and tell him it's time to go home.)

The evening began with a nod to President George H.W. Bush and Barbara Bush, who were in attendance. Somewhere, Jeb was sobbing, "Gee, thanks, Mom and Dad. Now you show up?"

The opening statements provided the usual acute glimpses into the candidates' psyches. Carson optimistically informed us that the country is "heading off the abyss to destruction." Kasich said, "I'm standing on this stage, it's pretty remarkable," which at least is one of his statements about which we can all agree. Rubio no doubt pleased the winners of office pools by being the first to invoke Ronald Reagan. Cruz expansively greeted the viewing audience with a hearty "Welcome to Texas," as if we had just showed up on his front lawn for a barbecue. And Trump used the phrase "Believe me!" not once but twice, distilling the essence of his entire campaign.

For the next two-plus hours, Rubio and Cruz went after the frontrunner on issue after issue, and this time, it was personal. Rubio pointed out that Trump had been fined $1 million for hiring undocumented Polish workers. Trump responded by saying, "You’ve had nothing but problems, with your credit cards, etc." Later, when the questioning inevitably got around to that "beautiful" Trump wall on the Mexican border, Rubio took another jab: "If he built the wall the way he built Trump Tower, he'll be using illegal workers to do it."

The sharp line was indicative of Rubio's strong performance in this evening's showdown, which was a 180-degree departure from his notorious robotic defense against Chris Christie — a topic, incidentally, that Trump brought up again and again. Rubio was sharp and quick-witted, smiling as he took Trump's body blows and hurling them back with ruthless efficiency. If he was drinking anything when the camera wasn't on him, it must have been Red Bull.

Both Cruz and Rubio went after Trump about his "fake university," in the latter's words, over which the businessman is being sued. And Rubio upped the ante by saying that if Trump hadn't "inherited $200 million, he'd be selling watches."

But It was on the issue of replacing Obamacare that Rubio truly pulled a Christie. When Trump said that he would solve the medical insurance problem by removing "the lines around the states," Rubio pounced.

"What is your plan?" he demanded of the Donald. Then Trump retreated to his usual blather about "it will be a beautiful thing" and again made the same point. Rubio gleefully shouted, "Now's he's repeating himself!"

A clearly rattled Trump tried to fight back, and again fell into Rubio's trap. "He said it again," Rubio triumphantly bellowed, as the Twitter universe blew up.

Asked about the same issue, Carson declared, "Health care is not a right," which could be the worst tag line ever. He went on to talk about his plan for private "Health Empowerment Accounts," which will apparently give all Americans the resources to patronize a "concierge practice." It sounded awfully nice, especially when compared to Trump's promise to not let people die in the streets.

Kasich responded to virtually every question with a rhapsodic portrait of Ohio, making the state sound even better than Oz. Based on his descriptions of it being a land of bountiful milk and honey, it's a wonder everyone hasn't moved there by now.

Not surprisingly, Trump was asked about Mitt Romney's recent remarks that he should immediately release his tax returns. "You don't learn anything from a tax return," Trump responded, before launching into a diatribe over having been audited by the I.R.S. for the last 12 years. (Ah, at least now we know the real reason he's running for president.)

Trump also managed to insult one of the debate's sponsors, Telemundo ("I don't believe anything that Telemundo says") and one of its questioners, conservative radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt ("First of all, very few people listen to your show"). You certainly can't accuse him of sucking up to the media.

At one point Rubio shared that his elderly mother is dependent on Social Security and Medicare. (Uh, Marco, U.S. senators make $174,000 a year. You don't think you could help her out a little?)

Questioned about the Middle East, Trump managed to brag about something that he hadn't even accomplished yet. If he brought peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians, the Donald declared, "It would be one of my greatest achievements as president."

"He thinks the Palestinians are a real-estate deal," sneered Rubio, landing yet another jab.

Late in the feverishly contentious proceedings, as Trump, Cruz and Rubio were all attempting to shout over each other, moderator Wolf Blitzer, sounding like an elementary school teacher, tried to appeal to their better instincts. "All of you have agreed to the rules," he said in a plaintive voice.

But better instincts seemed to be the last thing on anyone's mind during what was supposed to be a civilized exchange of ideas, especially when Trump pointed to the two men next to him and proclaimed, "This guy's a choke artist and this guy's a liar!" And that, in a nutshell, is why these Republican debates are right now the greatest show on earth. 

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