Detroit debate will show if Republicans’ new line of attacks on Donald Trump even work

–Eric Thayer / The New York Times

Reviews from the last Republican debate did not forecast a sunny outlook for Donald Trump heading into Super Tuesday.

Marco Rubio was on fire,’’ read the lede of CNN’s report. Trump was “terrible,’’ said The Atlantic’s headline. The Florida senator “trashed,’’ “skewered,’’ and “belittled’’ the billionaire businessman, wrote Politico.

And yet, Trump won seven of the 11 states up for grabs in the Republican presidential primary Tuesday — increasing his delegate lead over Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Rubio, even after they resorted to Trump’s own attack strategies of insults, loosely-substantiated claims, and emasulating suggestions.

As past polls have shown, Trump’s debate performances don’t necesarily impact his standing among supporters. Not only were Trump supporters less likely to watch past debates, those who did watch did not share the media’s negative reviews.


Additionally, pollafterpoll has shown that Trump has the most committed supporters. For example, a recent Florida poll found Trump leading by 20 percentage points in Rubio’s homestate. But it also found 79 percent of Trump supporters say they will “definitely’’ vote for him, compared to just 44 percent who say the same for the Sunshine State senator.

All that is to say: What — if any — way is there to check Trump’s momentum for the remaining candidates on the debate stage?

After reportedly mulling over whether he would participate in the so-called debate rematch with Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly, Trump’s campaign confirmed he would take his place Thursday behind the podium. Trump skipped the last Fox News debate after he said the network treated him unfairly, following his continual criticism of Kelly ever since the first GOP debate in August.

But tempers between the two sides seem to have cooled.

“I think he’s much more focused on securing the nomination now and not on me, and that’s how it should be,’’ Kelly told the Associated Press, adding that while she won’t go easy on Trump, she also expects he has adjusted better to handling interviews.

Furthermore, it appears that Fox News as an organization is coming to terms with Trump, while also souring on Rubio.


New York magazine reported Wednesday that Fox News CEO Roger Ailes told colleagues he had lost confidence in the 44-year-old senator’s ability to win.

“We’re finished with Rubio,’’ Ailes reportedly said. “We can’t do the Rubio thing anymore.’’

[Update: A Fox News spokesperson reached out to provide this comment from the network’s executive vice president of news, Michael Clemente:

“Consistent with the golden standard of Shermanonymous’ ‘reporting’ on FOX News and Roger Ailes, there is no credence to this narrative or the many other works of fiction he’s repeatedly been proven wrong on. Lacking any on-the-record sources, and desperate for attention, his stories are full of made-up quotes, but New York magazine doesn’t seem to care about his overwhelming lack of credibility, journalistic integrity and deeply partisan agenda.’’

The statement also included a link to an article questioning Sherman’s credibility.]

The same day as that report, Rubio went on Fox News and was pushed hard by the anchor Martha MacCallum on his lack of first place finishes. Rubio argued that the majority of GOP voters on Tuesday did not vote for Trump, suggesting his attacks were sinking in, despite the billionaire’s strong lead in delegates.

Given Rubio’s confidence in the success of his attacks in last debate, expectations are he will come out aggressively again Thursday. The question now is if Trump’s supporters and other GOP voters are still willing to give his punches a chance to land, or if Rubio will be swinging at air.

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