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Rubio, Cruz Use Debate To Try To Chip Away At Trump Ahead Of Super Tuesday


Some people watching the Republican presidential race play out had noticed something about Donald Trump. He didn't get attacked that much save for attacks from Jeb Bush, who is now out of the race. But last night was different. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio came at Trump hard. And it led to a night of bickering that sounded like this.


TED CRUZ: Donald claims to care about what he had done...

DONALD TRUMP: You know why? I didn't want to, but he sent me his book with his autograph...

CRUZ: Donald, Donald, Donald, I understand rules are very hard for you. They're very confusing.

TRUMP: Mr. Trump, you're doing a great job. I have his book.

CRUZ: OK, that...

MARCO RUBIO: Reality TV show, not...

TRUMP: Thank you for the book. Thank you for the book.

GREENE: You followed that, right? That sound coming from CNN, which hosted the event. Now, this is a crucial moment. Tuesday is Super Tuesday. A lot of states in play, lots of delegates up for grabs, and let's talk about this with the NPR's political editor, Domenico Montanaro, who's on the line. Domenico, good morning.


GREENE: So most raucous debate yet. I mean, does this feel different than other Republican debates?

MONTANARO: Well, so many of these debates have had so many fireworks and mudslinging...


MONTANARO: ...And this was even more than any of those, which is kind of a possible to think that they could top themselves in this unconventional campaign that we've had. But they did it last night.

GREENE: They pulled it off. Well, let's listen to a little more of this. I mean, both Rubio and Cruz were really hammering Trump and appeared to land some hits and here was one about the now defunct Trump University.


RUBIO: Starting a university, a fake university.

TRUMP: First of all...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: One at a time.

RUBIO: A fake university.

TRUMP: First of all, that's called - let me just tell you that's...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Hold on, one at a time, Mr. Trump.

RUBIO: There are people who borrowed $36,000 to go to Trump University and they're suing him now - $36,000 to go to a university that's a fake school.

GREENE: I mean, Domenico, I mean, my big question is does this play into Donald Trump's hands and the kind of candidate who he is or is he vulnerable here? Could these attacks really mean something?

MONTANARO: Who knows? (Laughter) I mean, the thing with this that's been so amazing - I mean, they hit him on Trump University, which Ted Cruz said, you know, we could have a nominee who is witness in a fraud case in July of a presidential year. They hit him on health care and changing positions and formerly, you know - or being supportive of something that seems like universal health care.

They hit him on foreign policy and his ability to be a commander in chief. And he - in a conventional year and in a conventional reading of this debate, you would say that Donald Trump was exposed as having a lack of depth on substance and policy. But so what? (Laughter) I mean, like, that has been something that anybody who didn't - anybody who already thought that about Donald Trump already thought that about him.

There's a reason that he was under the attack last night and that's because he is - has the clearest path to the nomination at this point and time is running out for Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz. You know, he withstood attacks in the last debate. In fact, the last debate, people thought that he had taken some hits because he had attacked the Bush family. Before that, he had seemed to come out in favor of the universal health care mandate and Obamacare...

GREENE: None of it seems to make a difference, I mean, if he keeps this winning streak going.

MONTANARO: None of it seems to make a difference, and he's still favored for Super Tuesday.

GREENE: Well, let me ask you, there's a congressman - Arizona Congressman - Republican Trent Franks, who sent a letter around the Hill this week urging either Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio to drop out of the race, suggesting that that might be a way to bring votes together and be competitive with Trump. Is that the way things would go theoretically if one of those two dropped out?

MONTANARO: You know, I thought I had this figured out a couple months ago and it's - I thought there would be a three-person race between Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and Donald Trump. And I guess I was right about that, but I thought that Ted Cruz and Donald Trump would split votes and that would be - you know, Ted Cruz would be Marco Rubio's best friend because they would split delegates from the same trench. And Marco Rubio would have this path out the back, and I think he still sees that path. Unfortunately, in South Carolina and Nevada, you didn't see that happening. You saw Donald Trump broadening his appeal to the base.

GREENE: Just about 30 seconds left - I wanted to ask you about one story I saw this week about a high school basketball game in Iowa where there were fans chanting Trump, Trump, Trump, at a team that is racially diverse with some African-American and Hispanic players. Can you just put that in the context of this campaign?

MONTANARO: I mean, I used to play basketball and used to go to a lot of high school gyms and hear a lot of nasty stuff from opposing, you know, places. But, you know, when you think about the cultural divide in this country and the kind of anger and frustration that Donald Trump seems to be channeling, you know, this is the kind of thing you start to hear on the campaign trail. You hear stories from other people who go to some of these events, and, you know, it's a difficult thing for people to wrap their heads around, and where it ends, it's not clear at this point.

GREENE: All right, NPR's political editor Domenico Montanaro. Thanks, Domenico.

MONTANARO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.