Ten debates into the Republican presidential primary, anybody who thinks they can predict the effect a single night’s back-and-forth will have on the individual candidates’ standing in the polls is either delusional or hasn’t been paying attention. But one thing that seemed pretty clear from the aftermath of the two-and-a-half hour food fight in Houston last night is that Donald Trump knew he’d been hit hard by Marco Rubio.
The two men clashed on any number of issues, from immigration to foreign policy to Obamacare. Rubio frequently interrupted Trump, attempting to talk over him or to interject sarcastic comments while the billionaire spoke. And, to be fair, he and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz each landed multiple blows on Trump that, in a real debate, would have been devastating.
But whether they will have much impact on Trump ‘s candidacy is, at this point, anybody’s guess. The billionaire former reality television star has demonstrated a Rasputin-like ability to survive assaults that ought to destroy him. And, oddly, virtually all of the attacks on Trump rolled out last night have been available to his opponents since the day he got into the race.
Rubio, for example, repeatedly referred to a decades-old lawsuit over immigrant workers as though it had just been filed. If Trump’s opponents had picked up this free ammunition months ago, he might not be headed into Super Tuesday with a massive lead in 9 of the 11 states that will be awarding delegates five days from now.
Putting aside the effectiveness of the attacks in terms of voter persuasion, though, it was clear from a post-debate interview that Trump gave to CNN that Rubio’s attacks, in particular, had left a mark. Why? Because, as Trump typically does when he feels threatened, he lapsed into Middle School mode, attacking Rubio on his appearance, rather than substance. He even suggested that Rubio has some sort of physical disorder that makes him sweat excessively.
The exchange, in all its Trumpian mean-girl splendor, is worth rehashing at length.
“The problem with Marco is he’s a choke artist,” Trump told CNN’s Chris Cuomo, referring to a previous debate in which New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie attacked the Florida senator. “He chokes. He did it in front of Chris Christie. I’ve never seen anything like that. I was standing right next to him and I’d look over and say ‘You okay?’ I mean it looked like he just came out of a swimming pool. He was soaking wet.”
He continued, “We can’t have a choke artist. One thing I’ve learned from sports – I was actually a very good athlete – when you’re a choker, you’re always a choker. We can’t have that. We can’t take any chances in this country.”
“He’s a meltdown guy,” Trump added. “I mean, I’m looking at him, he’s just pouring sweat, I’ve never seen anything like it. I don’t know what the problem is, but he’s just pouring down sweat. We have to have somebody that doesn’t sweat.”
When the US president has to negotiate with Russia and China, Trump said, “We need somebody that doesn’t have whatever that is that he’s got.”
To be clear, there’s no reason to think that Rubio has “got” anything. This is classic Trump deflection – and he deploys it most when he feels threatened. He did it to Jeb Bush when the former Florida governor challenged him; he did it to Ben Carson when the retired neurosurgeon was surging in the polls.
Rubio clearly struck a nerve with Trump last night. With Super Tuesday just five days away, though, the big question is whether starting to go after Trump like this months ago would have led to an outcome in which the loudmouthed billionaire was not the consensus favorite to win the GOP nomination.