Something remarkable happened during Tuesday’s Republican primary debate: Donald Trump, the 2016 presidential front-runner standing center stage, was not the night’s top target.
It was Marco Rubio.
In the face of Trump’s continued dominance, a couple of his rivals focused instead on the political battle for second place. And that meant setting their sights on Rubio, the Florida senator who has cast himself as a potential GOP consensus alternative to Trump.
Rubio’s biggest foil: Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. The two Cuban Americans went toe-to-toe four times, over government surveillance, the defense budget, U.S. intervention in Libya and immigration.
“Marco knows what he’s saying isn’t true,” Cruz said after Rubio criticized him for supporting a law that passed Congress earlier this year that limited bulk collection of Americans’ electronic records.
When Cruz endorsed “carpet-bombing” terrorists from the Islamic State, Rubio scoffed.
“ISIS is a radical Sunni group,” he said. “They cannot just be defeated through airstrikes. Airstrikes are a key component of defeating them, but they must be defeated on the ground by a ground force.”
Happy to showcase his foreign-policy expertise, Rubio held his own, at one point even joking that he was grateful for Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul’s attacks, since it gave him more time to speak to millions of television viewers.
Other candidates played cameo roles in their exchanges.
Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson refused to weigh in on surveillance.
Paul accused Rubio of being the “weakest of all the candidates on immigration.”
And New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie slammed the trio of senators — Cruz, Paul and Rubio — as unable to see the big picture.
“If your eyes are glazing over like mine: This is what it’s like to be on the floor of the United States Senate,” he said. “I mean, endless debates about how many angels dancing on the head of a pin from people who’ve never had to make a consequential decision in an executive position.”
Former Hewlett-Packard chief executive Carly Fiorina made a similar point about “first-term senators who never made an executive decision in their life.”
Ohio Gov. John Kasich derided it all as “too much noise.”
Toward the end of the debate, Trump was asked if he would rule out a run as third-party candidate.
“I am totally committed to the Republican Party,” he said, to cheers.
Still, Trump, who could benefit from keeping the rest of the field divided so no one emerges as his lead challenger, remained silent for extended periods of time. Paul, who barely made the debate stage, tried to take him on. But the most notable Trump confrontations came from former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
Bush, who has fallen to fifth place in many early polls after a series of lackluster debate performances, appeared more poised than in the past.
He dubbed Trump the “chaos candidate” and dismissed Trump’s proposed temporary ban on Muslim foreigners from entering the U.S. as unserious — “If we’re going to ban all Muslims, how are we going to get them to be part of a coalition to destroy ISIS?” — and briefly seemed to irk Trump when he interrupted one of Trump’s responses.
“A little bit of your own medicine there,” Bush quipped.
“You’re trying to build up your energy, Jeb,” said Trump, who infamously labeled Bush “low-energy” over the summer. “It’s not working.”
Retorted Bush: “Donald, you’re not going to be able to insult your way to the presidency.” The crowd rewarded Bush with resounding applause.
By the end of the night, Bush commented twice on Trump’s past assertion that he got informed on foreign policy from Sunday-morning news shows (“I don’t know if that’s Saturday morning or Sunday morning,” Bush said, referring to cartoons), and Trump fired back that Bush keeps slipping further and further away from the center of the stage where the poll-leaders stand (“Pretty soon you’re going to be off the end.”)
The debate hosted by CNN, which lasted more than two hours at the Venetian in Las Vegas, focused almost exclusively on foreign policy.
Earlier in the evening, another debate featured four candidates with the lowest poll numbers: South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, former New York George Pataki and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.
“For God’s sakes, pick somebody who is worthy of the sacrifice of those who are fighting this war and who actually knows how to win,” Graham said, imploring Republicans not to nominate Trump. “I don’t believe that’s Mr. Trump — and I know it’s not [Democrat] Hillary Clinton.”