Ted Cruz Exploits Marco Rubio At The GOP Debate, In His Final Push To Oust Donald Trump

On Thursday night, the Republican presidential field faced off in the penultimate primary debate, the 11th out of a slate of 12, and the last time they'd face one another before the Louisiana primary and the Kansas, Kentucky, and Maine caucuses go down on March 5. And just like you'd expect, the combative affair has left plenty of people wondering who won, who lost, who might get a bump heading out of it ― the usual array of questions. Well, here's one angle that's worth considering: Ted Cruz exploited Marco Rubio at the GOP debate, expertly positioning himself to benefit from the Florida senators attacks on front-runner Donald Trump, without having to get quite as aggressive himself.

If you had to order the candidates in terms of instigating attacks, you'd probably shake out with this list: Rubio, Trump, Cruz, and Kasich. While Trump was his typically virulent self, most of his pointed barbs came in the course of defending himself against Rubio, who pressed Trump's business record ― the Trump University fraud lawsuit and the collapse of Trump Steaks in particular ― and who copied one of Trump's favorite strategies, aggressively and repeatedly interrupting the belligerent businessman, and quite obviously getting under his skin. Trump was frustrated enough that he even felt the need to defend the size of his penis in front of a national audience.

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Cruz, by comparison, got to pick his spots to lob his attacks, and didn't get his hands nearly as dirty ― remember, going mockingly negative on Trump didn't seem to help Rubio in the aftermath of the last GOP debate, as he won just one state on Super Tuesday. He did get one pretty effective moment when he suggested that Trump could face a fraud trial during the general election, prompting cries of "oh, come on" from the front-runner, but by and large Rubio took the lion's share of the shots.

However, as some of the past debates have shown us, being the candidate on the attack doesn't always mean you're the one who benefits. Chris Christie's jabbing at Rubio in his final debate before dropping out serves as a good example ― while Christie generated no momentum of his own for his trouble, Rubio went on to sorely under-perform in the New Hampshire primary, while Kasich surged into second place at just 15 percent.

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And, considering that the Republican Party is gradually being forced to view Cruz as the only chance to unseat Trump, he seems the logical choice to benefit from any defections from the Trump camp. Of course, even suggesting that depends on some pretty unsafe assumptions, particularly that Trump has been outrageous and crude for months and nothing ever seems to hurt him, not seriously at least. On the plus side, it won't be much longer now before the story is written ― the massive, winner-take-all Florida primary is just weeks away, and Trump has a 20-point lead in the polls to play with.