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Anti-Trump Assaults Lead To A Chaotic Debate Stage In Houston


Next Tuesday may well be the last chance for Republican presidential candidates not named Donald Trump. The billionaire businessman has dominated the early presidential contest, and a big showing on Super Tuesday could all but hand Trump the nomination. And that is why in last night's Republican debate, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio threw everything they had at Trump. NPR's Scott Detrow reports on a pretty chaotic debate.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: At many points Thursday night, the Houston debate stage sounded something like this.


WOLF BLITZER: My name is...

TED CRUZ: I promise you, Donald...

BLITZER: My name is...

CRUZ: ...There's nothing about you that makes anyone nervous. You know, people are actually watching this at home.

DONALD TRUMP: I've seen you. You're losing so badly you - I want to - you don't know what's happening.

BLITZER: Gentlemen, gentlemen.

DETROW: That very hectic, very loud clip is courtesy of CNN, which hosted the debate. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz have each been jostling to position themselves as the main alternative to Donald Trump. The question going into the debate was whether the two senators would attack each other or both aim their fire on Trump. Right away, the answer was obvious. Rubio hit Trump on his business record.


MARCO RUBIO: If he builds the wall the way he built Trump Towers, he'll be using illegal immigrant labor to do it.

DETROW: Cruz hit Trump on his policy platform.


CRUZ: Did you say you're a liberal on health care?

TRUMP: I will let people die on the streets if I'm president.

CRUZ: Have you said you're a liberal on health care?

TRUMP: Excuse me. Let me talk.

CRUZ: Talk away. Explain your plan, please.

TRUMP: My plan is very simple.

DETROW: And Trump, well, he had no problem swatting back attack after attack after attack.


TRUMP: I mean, first of all, this guy's a choke artist, and this guy's a liar.

DETROW: The tussling among the three top candidates sucked up all the attention to the point where Ben Carson made an unusual request...


BEN CARSON: Can somebody attack me, please?


DETROW: ...So he could be able to respond. Carson has yet to make a strong showing in a caucus or primary. Ohio Gov. John Kasich finished a surprising second in New Hampshire but was a nonfactor in Nevada and South Carolina. He's hoping for a strong finish in later states like Ohio and Michigan. But many times during the debate, it sounded like Kasich was in an alternate universe, talking about bipartisanship and governance in a year where Republican voters aren't too interested in either.


JOHN KASICH: But at the end of the day, let's be practical. Let's start solving problems in this country instead of kicking them upstairs and in - and with President Reagan and George Bush, it was a bipartisan coalition to address the issue, and I think...

DETROW: And though Trump wasn't asked, the rest of the candidates all sided with the FBI in its high-profile showdown with Apple over whether or not the technology company should help unlock the San Bernardino shooter's iPhone. Marco Rubio says the federal government's request is limited.


RUBIO: That is all they're asking them to do is to disable the self-destruct mode or the auto-erase mode on one phone in the entire world. But Apple doesn't want to do it because they think it hurts their brand. Well, let me tell you, their brand is not superior to the national security of the United States of America.


DETROW: But the real focus of the night were Cruz and Rubio's prolonged attacks on Trump. Cruz criticized Trump for not releasing his tax returns.


CRUZ: He couldn't release past years' tax returns. He can do it tomorrow. He doesn't want to do it because presumably, there's something in there that is bad.

TRUMP: Nothing.

CRUZ: If there's nothing, release them tomorrow.

DETROW: Trump, in turn, taunted Cruz for poor showings in every contest after Iowa.


TRUMP: So let me ask you this because you're really getting beaten badly. I know you're embarrassed. I know you're embarrassed, but keep fighting, Keep swinging, man. Swing for the fences.

DETROW: For months, the Republican establishment has been waiting for the rest of the field to knock Trump down a peg. But they haven't, and Trump has now won three contests in a row, all by double digits. Trump pointed to the high turnout in every contest so far, something he claimed credit for.


TRUMP: New people are coming into the Republican Party. We are building a new Republican Party. A lot of new people are coming in.


DETROW: Current Republican leaders aren't so sure about this new Republican Party Trump is building. But he's gaining steam and won Nevada by more than 20 points this week. If Trump keeps winning and if Cruz and Rubio's attacks don't stick, that new Republican Party may be this year's reality. 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.