Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz just made Donald Trump look like a fool six months too late

Heading into last night’s debate, it looked like Marco Rubio wasn’t ready to take on Donald Trump.

He was. Too bad we’re only a few days out from Super Tuesday.

Senator Rubio ran circles around Trump, and at times drew circles around him, too. The same guy who turned into an actual robot in an earlier debate found his footing in pointing out that the only health insurance reform Donald Trump wants to commit to is getting rid of “the lines around the states.”

I’d never seen anyone re-gift their own gaffe before. I don’t think the crowd had, either.

That wasn’t all, though. Rubio hit Trump on hiring undocumented workers, on defrauding customers through Trump University, on his failure to release his tax returns and on being an all-around oaf. He even got in a few digs at Trump for not being authentic on the illegal immigration, pointing out that before he started talking about his Great Wall of Texas, Trump was for a pathway to citizenship and had suggested that Mitt Romney lost in 2012 because of his advocacy for self-deportation.

Ted Cruz got in on the act, too. While Rubio sarcastically needled Trump all night, Cruz took on the role (which he was born to play) of the pedantic nudge with a laser-sharp memory. Every time Donald Trump told a bald-faced lie, Cruz was right there to call him out. Check out this exchange:

Donald Trump, screenshot via 60 Minutes

Donald Trump, screenshot via 60 Minutes

CRUZ: Donald, true or false, you’ve said the government should pay for everyone’s health care.

TRUMP: That’s false.

CRUZ: You’ve never said that?

TRUMP: No, I said it worked in a couple of countries…

CRUZ: But you’ve never stood on this debate stage and says it works great in Canada and Scotland and we should do it here.

TRUMP: No, I did not. No I did not.

CRUZ: Did you say if you want people to die on the streets, if you don’t support socialized health care, you have no heart.

TRUMP: Correct. I will not 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. If people…

CRUZ: Talk away. Explain your plan, please.

TRUMP: If people — my plan is very simple. I will not — we’re going to have private — we are going to have health care, but I will not allow people to die on the sidewalks and the streets of our country if I’m president. You may let it and you may be fine with it…

CRUZ: So does the government pay for everyone’s health care?

TRUMP: … I’m not fine with it. We are going to take those people…

CRUZ: Yes or no. Just answer the question.

TRUMP: Excuse me. We are going to take those people and those people are going to be serviced by doctors and hospitals. We’re going to make great deals on it, but we’re not going to let them die in the streets.

CRUZ: Who pays for it?

The truth is, Donald Trump has in fact said that he’s a liberal on health care. And he has said that the government should step in to cover people who can’t afford to pay for their own care. When that’s framed as a refusal to leave people dying in the streets, as it was in a previous debate, it goes over well. When it’s framed as government-run health care, as Cruz framed it last night, it bombs. Either way, Cruz latched onto Trump’s contradiction and wouldn’t let go. Being an incessant pedant is one of his more annoying personality traits, but at least in this instance he used it for good.

Then again, it’s hard to tell exactly how much damage any of this did to Trump. After all, calling him out on his health care hypocrisy left Cruz (and Rubio) arguing in favor of letting people literally die in the streets. That may be a high price to pay for exposing Trump as a policy fraud.

What’s more, as emotionally satisfying as it was to see Donald Trump get continuously dunked on all night, we may be months past the time when this kind of ridicule could have done serious damage to his candidacy. At least within the Republican primary. The man has practically lapped the field nationally, and holds commanding leads in Rubio’s home state of Florida and John Kasich’s home state of Ohio. Depending on which poll you look at, he could be on his way toward knocking out Ted Cruz in Texas, as well. So although Rubio and Cruz may have drawn blood last night, it would be wishful at best to say that they made enough of Trump’s voters see the light in order to close their respective gaps.

In any case, per Rubio’s instructions, Google “Trump Polish workers.”

Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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