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Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz Direct Attacks At Donald Trump In Fox News Debate


We begin this hour with the identity crisis playing out in the Republican Party. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio went into last night's GOP debate with the same clear goal - attack frontrunner Donald Trump with everything you've got. NPR's Scott Detrow takes a look at how the 11 Republican debates have become increasingly Trump-centric.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: A main point of conversation in Republican circles right now is the basic question of how did this happen? How did Donald Trump become the far-and-away favorite to become the GOP's presidential nominee? And why didn't other campaigns aggressively attack him last fall and summer? But it's not like nobody was going after him in the early debates. Jeb Bush was blunt on a debate on CNN.


JEB BUSH: He's a chaos candidate, and he'd be a chaos president.

DETROW: It's just that the attacks were isolated and glancing and that Trump was usually pretty effective about brushing back whoever launched the critique.


RAND PAUL: He buys and sells politicians of all stripes.

DONALD TRUMP: I don't think you heard me. You're having a hard time tonight.

JOHN KASICH: We are on the verge, perhaps, of picking someone who cannot do this job.

TRUMP: He was so nice. He was such a nice guy, but then his poll numbers tanked.

DETROW: That was Rand Paul and John Kasich both taking their cracks at CNBC and Fox News debates at different points. Sure, many campaigns initially viewed Trump as a novelty who was coasting on name ID, but the candidates also had to focus on establishing themselves in a very crowded field. And for a long time, many were more focused on candidates that felt like more immediate threats. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, for example, were both trying to corral more traditional business-friendly Republican voters. That's what led to this infamous moment just before the New Hampshire primary at a debate on ABC News.


MARCO RUBIO: Here's the bottom line - this notion that Barack Obama doesn't know what he's doing is just not true...

CHRIS CHRISTIE: There it is...

RUBIO: ...he knows what he's doing...

CHRISTIE: The memorized 25-second speech.

RUBIO: Well, that's the reason why....

CHRISTIE: There it is, everybody.

DETROW: And there went Rubio's shot at New Hampshire. As the field narrowed, it became clear this race was all about Trump. So while Rubio and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz have tussled on debate stages before - here they are on CBS.


RUBIO: For a number weeks now, Ted Cruz has just been telling lies.

DETROW: Both now see Trump running away with the nomination. And that's the dynamic that led to last night's anti-Trump pile-on. In a debate on the Fox News Channel, Rubio once again went after Trump University, a real estate seminar New York's attorney general has called a fraudulent scheme.


RUBIO: And he's trying to con people into giving them their vote just like he conned these people into giving them their money.

TRUMP: Let me tell you...

DETROW: And Cruz added in Trump's political past arguing he'd be a weak general election candidate.


TED CRUZ: We're going to spend the spring, the fall and the summer with the Republican nominee facing a fraud trial...

TRUMP: Oh, stop it.

CRUZ: ...with Hillary Clinton saying...

TRUMP: It's a minor case. It's a minor case.

CRUZ: Why did you give my campaign, my foundation $100,000?

TRUMP: Excuse me, it's a minor civil case.

CRUZ: And with Hillary Clinton...

DETROW: Cruz and Rubio spent the better part of two hours questioning Trump's history, his politics, his temperament, his morals. But then at the very end, they were faced with this question from moderator Chris Wallace.


CHRIS WALLACE: Can you definitively say tonight that you will definitely support the Republican nominee for president even if it's not you?

DETROW: And Rubio, Cruz and Ohio Gov. John Kasich all said, yes - yes, they would. Scott Detrow, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.