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Donald Trump's Terrible Night

The Republican front-runner took some sharp blows from Marco Rubio, and appeared listless—even low energy—up on stage.

Mike Stone / Reuters

Donald Trump has gotten very used to winning recently, after racking up three straight primary and caucus wins. He’s even promised to win so much that Americans will get sick of winning.

But he didn’t get a victory in Houston on Thursday.

It was Trump’s worst debate of the campaign, and the defeat came largely at the hands of Marco Rubio, who hit Trump early and often. The climactic moment arrived during a discussion of health insurance. Every candidate has promised to repeal and replace Obamacare, but with what? Trump’s answer was that he’d allow the sale of insurance across state lines. Rubio pressed him: Is that all you’ve got? When Trump tried to slap back, Rubio was ready.

“He’s repeating himself!” Rubio exclaimed with a grin, echoing the very attack Chris Christie used so effectively against him just a few weeks ago. “I’m not repeating myself. I’m not repeating myself,” Trump insisted, but he was practically drowned out by the huge round of applause sweeping the hall.

It’s a wonder no one thought to accuse Trump of repetition before. As Rubio noted, Trump repeats a familiar set of slogans over and over: Make America great again. Build the wall. Win. Stop losing at trade. Force Trump away from those mantras, and he tends to get lost and confused. Of course, it’s also a wonder that no one has attacked Trump so directly before in debates, and especially that Rubio hasn’t done so. Right from the start on Thursday night, though, the Florida senator unloaded line after line of opposition research. He noted that Trump had paid $1 million to settle a court case over use of Polish illegal-immigrant labor. He pointed out that Trump is being sued for fraud over the so-called Trump University, a glorified real-estate seminar. He said that without his father’s inheritance, Trump would be "selling watches in Manhattan."

It was an incredible barrage. Only Jeb Bush had tried anything like it, and Trump easily talked over him. Unlike Bush, Rubio kept hammering, interrupting Trump and getting under his skin. And unlike Bush, who seemed deeply unhappy attacking, Rubio seemed to be having a blast slashing Trump. It all raised a rather uncomfortable question: What if Rubio had gone after Trump earlier, before Trump became the clear front-runner with Super Tuesday just days away?

Those weren’t Trump’s only bad moments. On Wednesday, Mitt Romney—remember him?—demanded that Trump release his taxes. Asked about that Thursday, Trump responded with an amazing unforced error, saying that he couldn’t yet release them because he was being audited by the IRS, adding that he’s regularly audited. It’s a fascinating admission: Why is Trump regularly audited? Is there some reason the IRS has questions about his returns? Trump was even made to look foolish by lead moderator Wolf Blitzer, who otherwise repeatedly lost control of the debate. Blitzer asked how Trump would cut the federal budget, and Trump mentioned eliminating the Department of Education and the Common Core, cutting environmental regulation, and eliminating waste, fraud, and abuse. Blitzer quickly noted that this would barely make any impact at all on federal spending.

Most of the debate was a three-way melee among Trump, Rubio, and Cruz. Trump had a few good one-liners. "I'm the only one on the stage who's hired people, period,” Trump sniped when Rubio brought up the Polish immigrant labor. “You don’t know a thing about business.” But Rubio generally got the better of Trump, while Trump had only retread insults to lob back. He kept trying to bring up Rubio’s New Hampshire meltdown, but it was a different Rubio on stage in Houston: agile, athletic, ready to improvise. Trump never saw it coming. He was generally supine and—could it be?—low energy. (Other Rubio lines were a bit less effective. He accused Trump of approaching the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as just another transaction: “The Palestinians are not a real-estate deal." But as many a wag pointed out, resolving the conflict sort of is a real-estate deal: After all, the basic dispute is over land.)

Trump did a little better against Cruz. As he has before, Trump assailed Cruz as a liar and harped on how little Cruz’s colleagues in the Senate like him. When Hugh Hewitt, one of the moderators, offered Cruz a chance to say that Trump couldn’t be trusted to nominate Supreme Court justices, Cruz mostly passed on the attack. Yet Trump happily turned around and slammed Cruz for his advocacy for the nomination of Chief Justice John Roberts, whom each called a disaster as a justice.

Rubio didn’t have a perfect night. Early on, moderator María Celeste Arrarás scored a direct hit by asking him about a statement he’d made, in Spanish, on Telemundo, where he said that DACA, President Obama’s plan to allow “DREAMers”—undocumented immigrants brought into the country as children—to stay in the U.S. must end, but that it would be unfair to end it immediately. On Thursday, he insisted he would end it on his first day in office. It was hard not to conclude that Rubio is either saying different things to different audiences or has changed his position.

This debate, like many others, remained sadly deficient on tough policy questions and follow-ups. Blitzer started off the night asking about vows by Trump and Cruz to deport all the immigrants who are illegally in the country, but he never asked either how they would execute that promise, which is uniformly considered fantasy by experts. While Rubio was right to call out Trump for having no health-care plan beyond allowing interstate insurance, there was precious little detail from any other candidate on stage, either. A lengthy discussion of “religious liberty,” mostly served to show the narrow and euphemistic way the term is deployed in Republican discourse, where it mostly applies to Christians: The candidates discussed whether bakers should have to provide cakes to gay weddings, but there was no discussion of Trump’s call to bar Muslim refugees, and perhaps other Muslims, from entering the country.

And, oh yeah, there were those two other guys on stage: John Kasich and Ben Carson. Kasich got the most attention of the two of them, occasionally jutting in to deliver a long, wonky answer, but he was largely shut out of the Trump-Rubio-Cruz fight, which isn’t a good sign for his chances going forward. Carson, never a strong debater, was a particularly spectral presence Thursday, hardly ever getting a word in edgewise and at one point begging to be attacked so he could talk. Carson did, however, manage to coin an incredible phrase when describing his litmus test for Supreme Court nominees: “The fruit salad of their life is what I will look at.” (Your guess is as good as anyone else’s.)

Will Trump’s terrible night make any difference? One rule of thumb so far has been that no matter how Trump performs during these debates, it doesn’t seem to hurt him. In fact, he’s hardly ever done well, though never this poorly. Maybe the concentrated heat of Rubio and Cruz will finally take Trump down a notch. That would be a great relief to the Republican Party establishment, but it would also be a serious indictment. If one debate is all it took, why didn’t Rubio and the rest of the party have the guts to take Trump out earlier, before he did major damage to the Republican brand?

Or maybe Trump will just keep rolling and rack up a series of victories on Tuesday. Stranger things have happened.

David Graham


This live blog has concluded

Super Tuesday voters are left to chew over two truths exposed by this Republican debate: Rubio won the battle, but Trump is redefining the war.

Trump had a bad debate, but luckily for him CNN is giving him a long solo rebuttal slot in an interview with Chris Cuomo.

In a post-debate interview, Donald Trump suggests he’s being audited by the IRS because he’s a “strong Christian.” I’m glad the interviewer is pushing back on this.

In his post-debate interview, Trump is obsessed with the fact that Rubio sweats a lot. Expect to hear that quite a bit more in the days ahead. "We need someone that doesn't sweat," he says.

I pronounce the moderators the loser of this debate. It may well be the most poorly moderated debate this entire cycle. Wolf Blitzer consistently interrupted exchanges just as they were getting interesting, and saved Donald Trump several times when he was being pressed for specifics that he never did offer. Early questions on immigration were presented with heavy handed frameworks that begged questions not in evidence. And I can’t imagine why we spent any time on Puerto Rico’s debate. Senators Cruz and Rubio attacked Trump more vociferously than ever before. If it doesn’t make a dent, I don’t really know where they go from here.

Marco Rubio clearly landed more blows on Donald Trump tonight than any other candidate has in any other debate. But the debate descended into "looniness," to borrow a Rubio line from his closing statements. And the question with anything involving Trump becomes: Will it matter?

This debate was the first full-on omnilateral Trump pile-on of the cycle, and the other candidates scored a lot of points, especially Rubio. The question is whether it's too late. Is the cake baked? Are Trump's supporters so stubbornly committed to them that they rule out any evidence to the contrary? There's reason to believe that's the case. But if persuadable Republican primary voters were listening, they surely heard some things about Trump that would leave a bad taste in their mouths.

Bully for the boys—Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio—who trumped the bully

Trump: Politicians are all talk, no action. Look what's happening to our country. Trade, vets, common core, Obamacare: I'll get it done, they won't, and we will Make America Great Again.

Cruz: Washington deals are bankrupting this country. Everyone else makes deals, but not me. I will do conservative things.

Rubio: The votes are starting to count! The identity of our party and the conservative movement is at stake. "Bring an end to the silliness, this looniness."

Kasich: I can beat Hillary. Executive experience matters. I have a lot of experience and expertise and confidence. I will hit the ground running

Carson: What kind of leader do you want? Secondly, a movie was made about my hands.

Hard though it may be to believe, the strongest attack on Ted Cruz wasn’t delivered on stage in Houston, but rather by former presidential candidate Lindsey Graham, speaking at the Washington Press Club Foundation dinner:

This might be nitpicking, but I'm surprised Cruz thinks the Apple case is a Fourth Amendment case when the FBI already has a warrant. The controversy is actually about the scope of the All Writs Act, which the FBI argues it can use to compel Apple to give law enforcement access to the iPhone in question.

John Kasich is wrong. There’s no reason for President Obama trying to waste time unlocking a phone that very likely has nothing of value on it. The FBI deliberately picked a public fight with an unsympathetic device owner because it wants to set a precedent: that tech companies can be ordered to do labor on the government’s behalf to subvert their own security.

"Apple doesn't want to do it because they think it hurts their band. Well, let me tell you their brand is not superior to the national security of the United States of America," Rubio says, taking the government's side in the Apple vs. FBI iphone skirmish.

I wouldn't be surprised if the DNC or another Democratic group makes and pays for a one-minute ad showing just that exchange of insults and taunts from a few minutes ago, without any narration.

For the first time tonight, John Kasich comes alive. He stresses the need for a seasoned executive to bring Apple in and strike a deal on the San Bernardino iPhone case. He’s animated. He’s loud. He’s engaged. But he’s not offering any specifics.

Dana Bash, “national security or personal privacy” is a false choice!

This is the best night of Hillary Clinton’s campaign.

Is this ​the most uncivil debate we've seen? The talking-over and insults are constant.

Cruz tried to show Trump as a member of the political establishment, calling him “malleable.” Trump says, “I funded you!” Rubio, offscreen, says “You didn’t fund me!"

Wolf Blitzer seems determined to interrupt the candidates and shift gears every time an interesting exchange seems imminent.

"There is nobody on this stage that has done more for Israel than I have, nobody," Trump says, writing off the rest of the candidates as "all talk no action."

Carson: “Can somebody attack me please?"

“This guy’s a choke artist and this guy’s a liar…I rest my case.” -Donald Trump

Trump asks, "I was in favor of Syria, I was in favor of Libya? I never even spoke about these things.” Because that’s comforting. It reminds me of when my mom found Newports under the couch and accused me of smoking. “But that’s not even my brand!” I said in my defense.

Cruz says John Kerry is the most anti-Israel Secretary of State ever. It's a ridiculous claim on its own, and it's a ridiculous claim considering then-Secretary of State George Marshall urged Truman to not recognize Israel after its founding.

Trump: Tell you one thing about those dictators, “at least they killed terrorists.”

Ted Cruz is right: Marco Rubio and Hillary Clinton end up in the same place on a lot of significant foreign-policy questions.

To the lexicon of international relations—ally, most favored nation, special relationship—Ben Carson now adds favorite child.

Ben Carson just provided that attack on the IRS that Russell Berman was looking for earlier from Trump.

“First of all, people say that I whine a lot,” Carson says, but he’s going to whine anyway. Wolf responds: “This is your moment.”

Mitt Romney, who has suggested there's "a bombshell" in Donald Trump's tax returns, is watching the debate and responds to Trump's excuse that he's under audit:

You would think that Blitzer asking whether Kasich really meant regime change when he said “regime change” would be a bad question, but Kasich is inexplicably incapable of answering it directly.

There are five candidates left in this race. Carson embarrasses himself every time he addresses foreign or defense policy. Trump cites his business experience. Rubio and Cruz are first-term senators.

Compared to that crowd, Kasich’s 18 years on the House Armed Services Committee make him look like a senior statesman. The trouble for Kasich is that his signal accomplishments on these issues—and they’re real, and hugely important—involved cutting back on wasteful defense spending and consolidating military bases. And that’s not exactly something he wants to tout in front of this crowd.

Marco Rubio sees the Israel/Palestine conflict as a black and white conflict between good and evil.

Shorter Trump: I’m a supporter of Israel. To wit: I’ve given a lot of money to them. (But when I give money to Democrats, it’s different. I don’t support them.)

Donald Trump says that he has won “many awards from Israel” over the years. No one follows up to ask which awards?

Classic Trump answer. He promises to be neutral, and then concludes by saying he’s totally pro-Israel.

Wolf Blitzer steps in and enforces pro-Israel orthodoxy with another heavy-handed question.

It's tough being a front-runner: Trump is actually complaining about getting too many questions. Carson and Kasich have little sympathy, I'm sure.

Several minutes of Trump-and-Cruz bickering came to a close with a CNN commercial break. But not before Trump could hit Cruz with a scathing line: "If I can't beat her, you're really going to get killed aren't you?" But "keep swinging, man," Trump said, as if to soften the blow, adding Cruz should "swing for the fences."

Cruz wants to eliminate the IRS and replace it with a Value Added Tax. So, 2016 being what it is, Cruz thinks Trump should show everyone the tax returns he’s proposing to eliminate.

I'm actually surprised Trump didn't directly accuse the Obama administration of auditing him because of his politics and the fact that he said the president was ineligible for his office. Given the controversy over the IRS's targeting of conservative groups, it would have been an easy charge to make, especially for Trump, who has little regard for facts or evidence.

Wolf Blitzer gets very uncomfortable when their is discord among the candidates. He seems to think it’s his job to jump in like a boxing ref and break them up.

Here’s a great 2014 Atlantic piece on Trump University and its legal troubles.

Ted Cruz is aggressively prosecuting the case that he’s more electable. Donald Trump responds by saying he keeps winning.

Is this the first time Trump has been forced to speak publicly about Trump University during a debate? That’s a can of worms I’m sure he’d rather not open.

An hour and a half into the debate, and a candidate makes the first mention of Hillary Clinton. “[Trump] can’t prosecute the case against Hillary,” Cruz says, trying to signal a weakness in the real-estate mogul. Later suggesting that Trump couldn’t beat her in the general. “Keep fighting, keep swinging man,” Trump retorts.

Cruz: "Donald went on an extended tirade about the polls but he didn’t address any of the substance."

Ted Cruz is now giving Hillary Clinton her lines in a future general-election debate against Trump. When Trump tries to criticize the Clinton Foundation, according to Cruz, Clinton can reply: "But you gave $100,000 to the foundation. And I came to your wedding!"

Trump says he can't release his tax returns because he's being audited. Another first in presidential-campaign history.

The Businessman says: You don’t learn anything from a tax return. Except Mitt Romney’s. It hurt him “bigly."

This week, Mitt Romney suggested there might be a “bombshell” in Trump’s taxes. Wolf directly asks if any of the accusations are true? ‘You don’t learn anything from a tax return,” Trump says, adding that he looked like a “fool.”

Returning to that previous exchange: Did Trump actually lose a debate over whether people should be allowed "to die on the street" without government intervention? Because he was attacked by both Cruz and Rubio for saying exactly that. In their defense, they were partly criticizing him for having no healthcare plan beyond soundbites, but if either of them is the nominee, it's a tough position to defend in the general.

Why “waste, fraud, and abuse”? Well, there really is fraud, and it’s a real problem. Knocking it down to private-sector levels could bring in more than $100 billion. But that’s largely committed by businesses and manages, and that’s not mostly what Trump’s talking about.

He’s speaking to voters in communities where SSDI is endemic; where food stamps are common. Where aid is most needed, and most ubiquitous, it’s also most likely that voters will know someone, personally, who's taking unfair advantage of a social-welfare program. And they’ll resent it. Polls have consistently shown correlations between support for the Tea Party, for example, and high levels of social benefits.

That’s the outrage that Trump’s channeling tonight. And I suspect it will work for him.

We’ve beaten up on Wolf, but Blitzer actually just asked a good question, which is what Trump would cut from the federal budget. He has… pretty much nothing. As Blitzer points out, those cuts would be barely a dent in federal spending. Trump says waste, fraud, and abuse, which as I’ve pointed out before hardly accounts for anything. Bottom line: Trump has no idea how to cut the federal budget, and he has no plan for it.

I suspect that Cruz came prepared to fight with Rubio tonight, but he's been left on the sideline as Rubio and Trump have duked it out for much of the debate.

If you’re worried about the risk that one of these men will abuse his executive authority in office, flouting the rules and steamrolling straight ahead? Watching them manhandle Wolf Blitzer and discard the debate rules is not reassuring.

The moderators have totally lost control. Ben Carson just asked for extra time and got it, and then Ted Cruz just asked for extra and Wolf Blitzer gave up without a fight.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what Ben Carson looks like talking about an industry he knows a lot about. Remember this moment. you may not see one like it again.

John Kasich compares reading a doctor’s bill to trying to decipher the Dead Sea Scrolls. (Because he doesn’t know ancient aramaic.)

It’s been painful to watch Trump repeat himself, as Rubio points to the difference between a slogan and a plan. But the most humiliating part of it for Trump? Having to be rescued by a moderator.

He’s succeeded, to this point, in large part by looking like the most confident, most dominant figure on the stage. Just now, Rubio made him look like he was floundering. The fighters were sent back to their corners, but that one’s a Rubio win on my scorecard.

My plan is a beautiful thing. It will be fantastic. The benefits will be huge. Really, it will be wonderful. You’ll get tired of how wonderful it is.

Marco Rubio is criticizing Trump for having no health-care plan except allowing insurance to be sold across state lines. That attack would work better if it wasn’t also the only major proposal by most Republicans on health care.

Rubio: I’ll give Trump one minute of my time if he gives us a health-care plan.

One of Marco Rubio’s most clever moves in the Senate was eliminating the "risk corridors” in Obamacare; liberal wonks have worried that it would grievously imperil the law. But that’s tough to explain on a debate stage, especially with Donald Trump shouting at you.

Many presidential candidates brag about how close they are to foreign leaders, as a way of demonstrating their experience and credibility. Trump, by contrast, has been relying on his business experience to boast of his close ties to health-insurance executives.

Trump is just doing a weird version of the traditional pivot-to-the-general-election strategy that front-runners traditionally do in every election at some point. First, he defends (while vowing to defund) Planned Parenthood. Next, he is upfront that would keep Obamacare's provision barring insurance companies denying coverage on the basis of pre-existing conditions.

Trump is defending the Obamacare provision that bans insurance provides from excluding people with preexisting conditions. That’s smart: the ban is very popular. But when Dana Bash asks him how he’d pay for it without the individual mandate, he has no coherent answer.

The assault on GOP front-runner Donald Trump came, probably, too late.
But it was refreshing to see the emperor exposed for all his
inglorious nakedness.

Some of what GOP voters heard about Trump on Thursday night:

1. He hired immigrants who took jobs from Americans
2. He was fine $1 million for improperly hiring Polish immigrants.
3. He donated millions of dollars to liberal Democrats
4. His quasi-university is under investigation for potential fraud
5. His immigration plans is a form of amnesty and depends on the
self-deportation of Hispanics, a concept Trump mocked when proposed in
2012 by GOP nominee Mitt Romney.
6. He's shameless. Aggressively attacked for the first time in a
campaign he has dominated for months, Trump shrugged off Marco Rubio
and Ted Cruz.

"We don't win anymore," Trump said of America in his opening
statement, confident that no matter what comes next, he will win more
GOP primaries.

F. Scott Fitzgerald once said the test of a first-rate intelligence was the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind simultaneously. If that's the case, Donald Trump, who just commended Planned Parenthood while vowing to defund it, has a first-rate intelligence indeed.

Presented without comment: Ben Carson says he'd look through the "fruit salad" of judges' lives.

Kasich makes a rousing argument against letting businesses refuse service to gay customers.

Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio are making attacks that would’ve surely succeeded in past campaign cycles. But do Donald Trump supporters care about his departures from conservative orthodoxy on this stuff? There’s not much evidence so far that they do.

For those keeping score at home, the GOP front-runner is currently defending Planned Parenthood as a women's healthcare provider.

Max Fisher and others are noting on Twitter that there’s a bizarre disconnect here: We’re talking at length about religious freedom, but not the fact that Trump has called for barring Muslim refugees—and possibly other Muslims—from the country.

Donald Trump offhandedly calls Ted Cruz a crazy zealot. And on the debate goes.

Hewitt is just begging Cruz and Rubio to go after Cruz on these issues. Senator Cruz, do you think Trump would appoint conservative justices? Senator Rubio, are you satisfied with his answer on religious liberty?

Hugh Hewitt asks Cruz if he trusts Trump to appoint a conservative justice. Cruz doesn't even try to answer the question, and instead gives a long diatribe about an imminent takeover of the Court by "radical leftist" justices, which isn't really accurate. Eventually, he says Trump would just "cut a deal" with Democrats to appoint a justice. Trump fires back by noting Cruz supported John Roberts and calls him a disaster for conservatives, which isn't even close to being true.

It goes to show how politicized the Supreme Court has become in the last decade or two that Trump's really harsh attack on the sitting chief justice is pretty unremarkable. John Roberts, Trump said, "has been a disaster" on the court for upholding the constitutionality of Obamacare.

What was Trump talking about when he said his sister had “signed a bill” along with Justice Samuel Alito? Trump’s sister is a federal appellate judge. She wrote a decision for a panel in an abortion case, finding a New Jersey ban on late term abortions to be “constitutionally vague.” Cruz, for his part, called her Trump’s “extreme abortion-supporting sister.”

But Trump pointed out that Alito joined the decision. Federal appellate judges apply the standards handed down by the Supreme Court, which—whatever their own views—is what Maryanne Trump Barry and Alito did in this case. Ted Cruz is well aware of that—making it yet another attack from the Texas senator that seems, well, dishonest.

Hey Wolf! Do your job and moderate. Trump talks whenever he wants, interrupts, and deflects direct questions. Get a lasso if you have to and wrangle this wild one. Where’s Martha Raddatz when you need her?

Last time, Hugh Hewitt asked about the nuclear triad to embarrass Donald Trump, betting he wouldn’t know what the term meant. I wondered if he would try something similar tonight. So far, nope.

I’m delighted, of course, that we’re getting into sampling error and polling methodologies on prime-time television, but I do have to wonder whether this is the most productive line of questioning for moderators to pursue as voters in a dozen states try to make up their minds.

Earlier, Rubio trotted out a line he's used to positive effect in at least one previous debate: "We are the party of diversity, not the Democratic Party," noting that two candidates on the stage are Latino and one is African American. Last week, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley said newspaper photos of Rubio and the corps of Palmetto State leaders who've backed him—herself, an Indian American; African American senator Tim Scott; and white congressman Trey Gowdy—were like a "Benetton ad." All young leaders, they are widely expected to play significant roles in the Republican party in the coming years.

Over the course of the campaign Donald Trump has characterized Hispanics in very different ways. Tonight, “Incredible people.” At other times, “rapists,” and some good people, he guesses.

“First of all, I don’t believe anything Telemundo says,” Trump says, and then cites polls from the Nevada Republican caucuses this week, which showed him leading among Hispanics. “Nobody else was close because they know I’m going to bring jobs back,” he says.

Every immigration question so far as had a heavy-handed premise lurking beneath it. The premises have been wildly different too. I’m not sure what the purpose is of asking Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio if they’re missing a big opportunity with the way they’re campaigning, as if there’s any chance they’ll say, “Well, when you put it that way, you’re right. I hereby abandon my prior position."

Rubio has a point. Immigration isn’t necessarily the number one priority among Hispanics. According to the Pew Research Center, Hispanics ranked jobs/economy and health care above immigration.

John Kasich sticks with his strategy of trying to appear as the most sober, reasonable, and empathetic candidate on the stage. It’s a textbook strategy—address the economic anxieties of voters, appear relatable, stress your own record. He’s executing it well. And it’s not clear it’s going to matter at all.

Unlike the long-shot candidates who have since dropped out, Ben Carson and John Kasich don't have the habit of trying to jump in and get air time at these debates. That's really hurting them here, as they both have virtually disappeared from the stage so far amid the fighting among Trump, Cruz, and Rubio. It's the risk of being polite.

Ben Carson’s inner-monologue: The wall is getting higher and higher. That’s good. The abyss of destruction is growing. Maybe I can be in charge of the Night’s Watch. How do we stop the Mexican White Walkers from flooding the north? Summer is coming.

The order of this race is clear: Rubio, who is in second, is hitting Trump. Cruz, who is in third, is hitting Rubio.

Rubio is straddling two sides here: Trying to show sympathy for immigrants but also being a hardliner on immigration. His argument is that “no matter how sympathetic we might be to a cause” he’ll still block Obama’s executive order on immigration.

I’m not sure that Marco Rubio is the ideal antagonist for Donald Trump. But he’s so much more effective than Jeb Bush. It isn’t even close.

As my colleague Peter Beinart notes:

Latino voters are expected to make up a larger portion of the electorate come November. A Washington Post-Univision poll  found that a majority of Hispanics view Trump “unfavorably,” trailing far behind other Republican presidential candidates and drawing a sharp contrast with Democrats. It’s a vote that candidates will have to secure for a win.

Rubio is unloading on Trump with everything he has in his opposition research book, and he's doing it with a particular strategy of interrupting Trump to get under his skin. It's definitely getting to Trump, but Trump is just as quick with his knowledge of Rubio's weaknesses.

We know two things now: First, Marco Rubio prepped to attack Donald Trump, and second, Trump is not intending to take it easy during this debate. He came ready to fight too.

Donald Trump, the richest candidate in the race, makes the richest attack in the race by criticizing the former president of Mexico for his foul language. I thought he was the candidate running against political correctness?

Trump keeps adding 10 feet to the wall as retribution for Mexican politicians rejecting it. How high are we talking by now? Thirty feet? Forty feet?

Trump has been remarkably effective at attacking his rivals, not on the substance of their positions, but by relentless, cruel caricature—seizing on traits, and mercilessly exaggerating them. He mocked Jeb Bush as “low energy.” He’s gone after Ted Cruz for dishonesty. He’s hit Rubio for his lack of experience outside of politics, and tonight, for his personal financial troubles.

He just tried something new, telling Cruz, “Nobody likes you.” As Molly’s reported, Cruz is widely reviled by his Republican colleagues in the Senate, none of whom have endorsed him. Cruz does have plenty of fans and a fiercely loyal staff. But the idea that Cruz is just fundamentally unlikeable stings. Trump, if nothing else, is a remarkably skilled bully.

Rubio’s line of attack against Trump at the start of the debate: His hiring record. Last summer, the Washington Post reported on the workers at the Trump hotel in Washington, DC. According to the report, several workers had crossed the U.S.-Mexico border illegally. Rubio is likely trying to debunk Trump’s hard stance on illegal immigration, but that still comes short of providing a detailed plan on the issue.

"Let's be practical," John Kasich says as he makes a pitch for bipartisan problem-solving of the kind Ronald Reagan (and Vice President George H. W. Bush) did with Democratic leaders in Congress. That's really a big part of his pitch in this race, but so far it's had limited appeal among Republicans.

Trump's right when he says Cruz doesn't have any endorsements from his Senate colleagues. But he does have a couple dozen House members on his side. And, fitting for the setting of tonight's debate, he's got the endorsement of the Texas governor, Greg Abbott.

Why is Wolf Blitzer asking questions as if the premise of “deport 12 million” is actually possible?

Cruz masterfully handles the nobody-likes-you card: That’s right nobody likes me because I stonewall Democrats and don’t cut deals. The man is consistent.

Cruz attacks Trump for his willingness to make deals, wagering that voters care more about obstruction than they do about protecting their own interests. So far that hasn’t worked that well in the campaign.

Trump plays the "nobody-likes-you" card on Ted Cruz. "You don't have the endorsement of one Republican senator, and you work with them everyday. You should be ashamed of yourself," he tells Cruz.

Conservatives have been agitating all day for Rubio and Cruz to go after Trump, warning that they're only helping the front-runner if they go after each other.  So far, they are taking up the challenge on the immigration issue, with Rubio accusing Trump of hiring foreign workers and Cruz accusing him of funding the politicians that promoted the immigration bill.

Mitt Romney mused earlier this week that there could be a "bombshell" in Donald Trump's tax returns, and Trump immediately punched back. Tonight, after Marco Rubio brought up criticism Trump had for Romney's immigration plan, Trump used the moment to punch again: "He run one terrible campaign. That was an election that should've been one."

Deporting 11 million immigrants, as Ted Cruz now declares that he wants to do, would necessitate an aggressive police state that actively checked the documents of people––including American citizens—on the street. No one can credibly claim to be a small government conservative and actually carry out that agenda.

Ted Cruz joins Rubio in piling on Trump. “I really find it amazing that Donald believes that he is the one that discovered the issue of illegal immigration,” he says, adding that when he was senator, Trump was on The Apprentice.

Trump is now treating Rubio like Jeb Bush. "Be quiet. Let me talk," he says when Rubio tried to talk over him in their immigration fight.

Trump has a quick retort to Rubio's  charge that he's the only person on the stage who's hired people illegally. "I'm the only one on the stage who's hired people, period," Trump replied to cheers.

Trump says he had to hire immigrants because Americans wouldn’t do part-time jobs. Of course, he could have hired people for full-time jobs.

Donald Trump on hiring foreign workers in Florida: “You could not get help.” He’s approaching cartoon billionaire. “It’s so hard to get good help these days."

Marco Rubio notes that the first thing he’ll do as president is secure the border and then directs his line of attack to Donald Trump. "Donald mentioned his position is what’s driven to this debate… but they’re new to him,” Rubio said. It’s quite the shift in the debate, which on this topic has fueled confrontation between Rubio and Cruz. But a question coming into the debate was whether Rubio would engage with Trump after stepping up attacks this week. On Wednesday, Rubio called out the real-estate mogul by name on the campaign trail, targeting him on Obamacare and Israel. And tonight it looks as though he’s bringing that to the debate stage likely hoping to stunt Trump’s momentum.

The first hit on Trump comes from Rubio, who notes that he has hired thousands of workers to do jobs that Americans could have been doing.

Trump: Despite Cruz’s whole Arizona analysis about wages and employment, I win, because the toughest sheriff in the state, Joe Arpaio, “totally just endorsed me."

The Republican Party has been talking for years about attracting new voters by moderating on immigration. Donald Trump has attracted a bunch of new voters using exactly the opposite approach. And for yet another election cycle, the GOP nominee will enter the general election with a hard-line stance that is out of step with what most Americans think, even though it plays well in primaries.

It’s borderline unconscionable that Blitzer’s question to Donald Trump is not “How would you deport 11 million people?” but “Is your plan amnesty?"

The first question of the night is on immigration and directed to Trump, who’s used harsh rhetoric on the topic. “You wouldn’t have asked that as the first question if it weren’t for me in my opening,” Trump says, sticking to a point he’s used in the past. Surpisingly, the Republican front-runner did make mention of wall but said those who come would come through a process.

Marco Rubio with a rare George H. W. Bush shoutout in his opening, undoubtedly because the former president is sitting in the crowd. (Rare for candidates not named Jeb Bush, that is.)

Nothing like starting out on an up note! Ben Carson reminds the crowd that "we are on the edge of an abyss of destruction."

Ben Carson starts off with a call for unity among the Republican candidates that will promptly be ignored, in all likelihood.

Jeb Bush isn't at the CNN debate tonight at the University of Houston. But his family is. President George H.W. Bush, First Lady Barbara Bush, and their son Neil are all in the audience. The senior Bush parents live in the Houston area. It's gotta be hard for the family to see the five candidates who aren't their son on stage. He dropped out less than a week ago after the South Carolina primary—and after his mom hit the campaign trail hard on his behalf.

It may be their last, best chance to stop Donald Trump.