The top Republicans in the race for the White House disagree over how best to round up and deport all 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country – also whether to allow any of “the good ones” back in. They think terrorism, Obamacare and gay marriage are bad; religious freedom, border security and Israel, all good.
Much of the rest kind of got lost in the shouting match that played out at the University of Houston Thursday night as the Republican presidential candidates engaged in the most critical debate of the season ahead of the Super Tuesday primaries, which will likely decide the nominee.
Ahead of the debate, bands of protestors somewhat aimlessly roamed around campus, most of them chanting some variety of anti-Trump slogan. UH student Jazzlyn Levigne carried a poster with a series of creepy Hitler-Trump face mashups. "Hitler and Donald Trump both used fear to appeal to people," she said. "Seemed appropriate."
They weren't exactly the easiest to find, but Trump and/or Ted Cruz supporters were out walking the campus. Carrying "Don't Trust the Liberal Media" stickers, students Bennet Marcum and Brooks Butler, both 19, insisted Trump gets a bum rap — mostly, as Butler put it, because "people just take a lot of what he says out of context." That Mexicans-are-rapists comment? Marcum says it was just awkwardly worded commentary on the scourge of human trafficking, "which is, like, everywhere." Butler chimed in: "I feel more like it was a shot against the cartel. They're known to rape people."
Perhaps more tellingly, some Cruz supporters, while not necessarily ditching to join the Trump camp, seemed to be resigned to a Trump nomination — an increasingly likely scenario, considering that he's won the past three states. Marcum, wearing a Cruz sticker and wielding one of those "TrusTed" signs, said Cruz/Trump would be a dream ticket. "I'd love to vote for both Cruz and Trump."
In fact, it became clear early on in the debate that Trump, the unlikely front-runner who's quickly looking like the presumptive GOP nominee, would be both the biggest threat and the main punching bag of the night. When Marco Rubio called Trump out for being fined for hiring illegal immigrants, Trump hit back: "I've hired people. Nobody up here has hired people." It was one of many times throughout the night that Rubio would try to yell over the candidate, with little luck.
Then came Cruz's turn. When he also tried to attack Donald "Mexicans are rapists" Trump on immigration, Trump hit back against Cruz, pointing out that the Texas Senator hasn't been endorsed by any of his Republican colleagues in the Senate. "You should be ashamed of yourself," Trump scolded.
"If you want to be liked in Washington, that's not a good attribute for a president," Cruz replied.
Even Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Ben Carson seemed to acknowledge early on that they weren't the main show of the night. "How do you always get so much time to talk?" Kasich asked Cruz in a truly jovial tone — as if even he was amused by Thursday night's circus. Kasich gets the award for "Most Likable," but it seems likely he'll get voted off the island in the not-too-distant future.
As for Carson, he popped up during one Rubio-Cruz-Trump squabble to say, "Can someone attack me, please?"
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Despite his bumbling performance in the last GOP debate, in which he recycled word-for-word the same anti-Obama talking point numerous times, Rubio managed a more confident, combative performance in Houston on Thursday. When Trump went after him on his lousy showing last debate ("I watched him repeat himself five times four weeks ago"), Rubio immediately fired back, "I watched him repeat himself five seconds ago." It was one of the biggest applause lines of the night. Trump tried to shout over the clapping, yelling, "I don't repeat myself. I don't repeat myself."
While Cruz has a lot riding on Super Tuesday and needed to score a clear-cut win in the Houston debate, he came off more whiney referee than presidential on Thursday night. When Obamacare came up and Cruz didn't get to talk as long as he wanted: "Don't I get to talk about it? I kind of have a history with it." After one of many jabs from Trump: "He called me a liar and interrupted me. Don't I get to address that?"
Trump, of course, seemed to be having the most fun of the bunch. "This guy's a choke artist," he said, pointing to Rubio. Without pause, he pointed to Cruz, saying, "And this guy's a liar."
Political pundits have insisted for weeks that by the time the Houston debate was over, it would be obvious who was going to lock down the GOP presidential nod. However, after more than two hours of blustering, yelling and arguing with each other, good luck figuring out what's changed.