Wall Street Journal
By Gerald Seib
February 25, 2016
Eight months after Donald Trump declared he was running for president, six months after the first debate and two weeks after Mr. Trump began reeling off three primary-season victories—Sen. Marco Rubio decided to go after him Thursday night.
Having waited that long to launch an attack, Mr. Rubio brought it on with not just two barrels but an Army brigade’s worth of barrels. He said Mr. Trump’s tough immigration stand is hypocritical because he once hired illegal Polish workers and was called out in court for doing it. He said he succeeded in business only because he got a giant jump start from his rich father, and otherwise would be selling watches on the streets of Manhattan.
Donald Trump and Sen. Marco Rubio spar over details of Trump's proposed health-care reform, which includes "removing lines around states" to allow for increased competition among insurance companies. Photo: Getty
He called Mr. Trump soft on support for Israel, soft on defunding Planned Parenthood and unreliable on judicial confirmations, soft on Obamacare and lacking any health-care plan of his own.
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz joined in as well, and Mr. Trump fired back with typical full force.
The more telling point is that any of this fusillade could have been unleashed at any time in recent weeks. But it wasn’t. It came in Thursday’s night debate, for two reasons. First, both Messrs. Rubio and Cruz badly need to turn the race into a two-man fight, between one of them and Mr. Trump. Second, they need to move fast before they lose that chance.
The tenor of the debate, in fact, was the clearest sign that both Messrs. Rubio and Cruz, and many other Trump foes in the party, have concluded in recent days that they have waited too long in trying to take him down. The assumption of many in the Republican establishment has been that he would self-destruct in a backlash against his angry tone, his harsh critiques of other Republicans, his anti-immigrant rhetoric and his unorthodox approach to campaigning.
That hasn’t happened, of course. In fact, other campaigns operated under the mistaken belief that they could bide their time, slice each other up for the right to emerge as the lone alternative to Mr. Trump, and then consolidate a considerable anti-Trump vote on the way to the nomination. That is why Messrs. Rubio and Cruz have spent much more time attacking each other in recent weeks than they have in addressing the man who was emerging, clearly, as the front-runner.
That phase of the campaign ended Thursday night, starting almost from the outset, with Mr. Rubio’s charge that Mr. Trump’s anti-illegal-immigrant stance was undercut by a long-running public and legal controversy in New York over the hiring of illegal Polish workers on a Trump project. (Mr. Trump testified that he didn’t know the workers were illegal.)
Mr. Trump responded to this attack with aplomb: “I’m the only one on the stage who has hired people.”
But the tone was set, and Mr. Rubio remained in attack mode. Mr. Cruz joined in, but his line of attack was less incendiary, and somewhat different.
While Mr. Rubio tried to portray Mr. Trump as unreliable and dishonest, the Cruz attacks asserted, by and large, that Mr. Trump isn’t a true conservative. But that may miss the broader point of the Trump phenomenon. Mr. Trump isn’t a conventional conservative and doesn’t really pretend to be.
And there is little sign that the people supporting him really care. They are following him for reasons other than ideological purity. So it isn’t clear that attacking him on ideological grounds will do much to shake the faith of people who are drawn to his unconventional mix of views in the first place.
In fact, in one sign that Mr. Trump may be looking past such primary attacks toward a general-election audience, he offered positive words about the Planned Parenthood organization, which has become a favorite target of GOP conservatives but is popular with many moderate women. Though Mr. Trump said he would defund the organization because of its abortion activities, he said “millions and millions of women….are helped by Planned Parenthood.”
In any case, two things became clear Thursday night. First, the attack-Donald season is now in full swing. Earlier in the day Thursday, the conservative Club for Growth released a new television ad that will start airing in some of the 11 states where Republicans vote next Tuesday, charging that Mr. Trump has “a long liberal record of support for higher taxes, national health care and government bailouts.”
Second, Mr. Trump won’t take it lying down. He belittled Mr. Rubio at the debate as a man with no experience in the real world and a “choke artist” for his past debate performances, and Mr. Cruz as a typically slippery politician. In fact, Mr. Trump closed out the debate by declaring his foes to be all political talk and no action.
Only a few days remain before those Super Tuesday primaries. If Thursday night’s performance is any guide, Mr. Rubio will spend those days attacking Mr. Trump. And if history is any guide, Mr. Trump will be launching a ferocious counterattack.
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