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Trump ‘on cruise control’ as Cruz, Rubio grope to derail the Donald in last key debate

Reuters/AFP-JIJI

Donald Trump takes center stage at a debate in Houston on Thursday as the favorite to win the Republican presidential nomination, with time running out on his remaining rivals to change a race rapidly tilting away from them.

Trump, 69, has won three of the first four contests in the nomination fight for the Nov. 8 election to succeed Democratic President Barack Obama. After easily defeating his rivals in Nevada on Tuesday, the New York billionaire businessman is in position for more victories on March 1, when Republican party contests will be held in 11 states on what is dubbed “Super Tuesday.”

At a CNN-hosted debate at the University of Houston, Trump’s rivals will have one of their last best chances to try to derail the blunt-spoken political outsider before Super Tuesday.

Whether they can pull it off is an open question. On stage with Trump will be U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson. None has been able to slow Trump’s momentum in previous debates.

“Trump is on cruise control,” said Eric Fehrnstrom, a former senior adviser to 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney. He said Trump should ignore his opponents and focus on the key planks in his platform — a border wall to keep out illegal immigrants, a stronger military, defeating Islamic State and fair trade.

“It’s getting late in the game for everyone else,” Fehrnstrom said. “People who are expecting a sudden shift in the direction of the race are deluding themselves. Trump is Goliath, and we’ve seen enough of the other candidates to know there are no Davids in this field.”

Even so, while Trump has scored early victories and is well ahead in national opinion polls, he has some ways to go to clinch the party’s nomination, which is decided by the number of delegates sent to the July party convention following the state-by-state nominating contests.

So far Trump leads the race with 81 delegates, with Cruz and Rubio well behind at 17 apiece. To secure the nomination, a candidate needs 1,237 delegates.

Super Tuesday will be critical because there are nearly 600 delegates at stake in Republican races that day.

Rubio, 44, has an added incentive to change the makeup of the race. He is scrambling to attract the financial donors who supported one-time establishment favorite Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor and Rubio’s one-time mentor, who dropped out of the race after his disappointing finish in South Carolina on Saturday.

Bush, the son and brother of former presidents, held a conference call with his top donors on Wednesday. A donor on the call said Bush offered effusive thanks for their support but provided no direction on whom they should now help.

On Thursday, Tennessee Gov.r Bill Haslam endorsed Rubio. Predicting that Hillary Clinton, 68, would win the Democratic nomination, Haslam said Rubio would present a youthful face to the American people in the general election campaign.

“With Marco standing next to Hillary Clinton on a debate stage, the choice between the future and the past will be clear to every American,” Haslam, a popular second-term Republican governor, said in a statement.

Cruz, 45, enters the debate under pressure. He must do well in his home state of Texas on Super Tuesday. Recently, he has been accused by his rivals of using negative tactics, including one that led to the resignation of his spokesman, Rick Tyler.

Cruz suffered another setback on Thursday when two Texas newspapers, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and the San Antonio Express-News, endorsed Rubio.

“While Rubio’s message is generally optimistic and policy-driven, Trump and Cruz are often boorish, angry and divisive. Trump is not a conservative, just a manipulator of anger and disenfranchisement,” said the Express-News, which had previously backed Bush.

Cruz had already been passed over for an endorsement by the state’s two biggest newspapers, the Dallas Morning News and the Houston Chronicle.

Romney, who has not endorsed anyone yet, offered a pathway for attacking Trump, telling Fox News on Wednesday that Trump’s tax records were bound to contain material that could be explosive.

“The reason I think there is a bombshell in there is because every time he is asked about his taxes, he dodges and delays and says: ‘Well we’re working on it,'” Romney said.

Trump, whose trademark on the campaign trail has been rapid and aggressive criticism of rivals and critics, tweeted in response: “Mitt Romney, who totally blew an election that should have been won and whose tax returns made him look like a fool, is now playing tough guy.”

In the Democratic race, Clinton has faced a stiff challenge from the left by U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont. Sanders won overwhelmingly in the New Hampshire primary, one of the early nominating contests, and in Iowa finished just barely behind Clinton. The next Democratic contest is on Saturday in South Carolina, where polls predict Clinton will win.

Can any of Trump’s rivals find the magic words to stop his triumphal march toward the Republican presidential nomination?

The Grand Old Party’s White House contenders face that question as never before as they gather in Houston Thursday for their last debate before “Super Tuesday,” the delegate-rich, single-day run of a dozen state primaries on March 1.

The five-way debate, which begins at 7:30 p.m. local time (0130 GMT Friday) and will be carried live by CNN, promises to be stormy.

By turns boastful, mocking or menacing, Trump has hit on a style that has seduced a growing and increasingly diverse share of Republican voters — to the dismay of his rivals, who have struggled to find an effective angle of attack against the 69-year-old billionaire.

Sens. Rubio and Cruz, the only two candidates given any chance of beating Trump, know that the stakes on this Texas evening could not be higher.

Retired neurosurgeon Carson is still in the race but hardly anyone seems to be paying him attention.

Kasich, who has a more moderate and less gloomy message about the state of America than his rivals, knows he will be under mounting pressure to withdraw from the race so that the “anti-Trump” forces can coalesce around Rubio.

Trump seems unfazed by that possibility.

“It’s going to be an amazing two months,” he boasted in a victory speech in Nevada Tuesday, confidently predicting sweeping wins that will clinch the nomination long before the Republican convention in Cleveland in July.

“We might not even need the two months, to be honest.”

After three consecutive victories — in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada — and with his fron-trunner status confirmed by the polls, some wonder whether Trump will tone down his incendiary rhetoric, and adopt a more “presidential” pose.

Will he attack Rubio with the same ferocity, now that longtime whipping post Jeb Bush has stepped out the ring?

“Marco Rubio’s a nice young man. I can’t hit him, he hasn’t hit me,” Trump said this week.

But, “when he hits me, oh, is he going to be hit.”

Several hours before the debate, a Quinnipiac University poll sounded what could be a death knell for the hopes of party elders intent on blocking Trump’s advance: it showed Trump handily winning in Florida, Rubio’s home state.

It found that 44 percent of Republicans in the state would vote for Trump, and only 28 percent for Rubio. Cruz would place third with 12 percent, according to the Feb. 21-24 survey of likely Republican primary voters.

“If Rubio can’t win in his home state, it is difficult to see how he can win elsewhere,” said Peter Brown, the poll’s assistant director.

The Florida primary, which will be held March 15, is the juiciest prize of the Republican nomination race because the winning candidate scoops up all its 99 delegates.

Within the Republican party, some still expect a long fight and cling to a scenario in which three candidates — Trump, Rubio and Cruz — stay in the race until the convention, with none gaining an absolute majority of delegates — 1,237 out of a total 2,472.

In this case, after a first round, delegates would be released from their initial commitment and could vote for the candidate of their choice in a second round, thereby reshuffling the electoral deck.