Cruz, Rubio prep for brutal debate night – Politico

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In final show before Super Tuesday, the senators are poised to unleash a nasty assault and emerge the anti-Trump.

The final Republican presidential debate Thursday night before the Super Tuesday contests has the potential to be an epic display of anger and rhetorical aggression, with Rubio and Cruz going after each other on everything from policy to character as each struggles to emerge as the single alternative to Donald Trump.

At this critical juncture in the race, with Trump on a three-state win streak and Republican operatives questioning whether time is running out to stop the New York billionaire, tonight’s fireworks-filled forum will provide a window into the contenders’ end-game strategies.

Here’s what POLITICO is watching in Thursday’s GOP debate.

Rubio’s playbook

Rubio has yet to aggressively engage Trump — and those briefed on his strategy say he’s unlikely to do so on Thursday night.

The Florida senator has concluded that going after Trump would accomplish little because the businessman’s supporters are deeply committed and unlikely to swing Rubio’s way. Inciting a confrontation with Trump onstage would create drama but wouldn’t help the senator gain voters, something he badly needs as he looks for his first primary win.

Instead, Rubio’s team has decided his best bet is to focus fire on Cruz. They think the Texas senator’s voters are less locked in and could swing Rubio’s way should Cruz fade. The only way to dislodge Trump, Rubio’s advisers say, is to turn it into a two-man race — meaning that they first need to get Cruz out of the way.

Of course, if Trump chooses to engage Rubio — something he hasn’t yet done in a debate — Rubio will have to respond. And while Rubio may not directly take on Trump, he may do so implicitly.

Rubio will also be playing to the more mainstream, establishment Republican donors and supporters, arguing as he has shown in recent days that he is the only candidate who can unite the party and win the general election.

It’s a line that appeals to the profoundly worried Republican Party hierarchy that Rubio is aggressively courting. Last week, Karl Rove delivered a presentation during a gathering of the Republican Governors Association at the posh Fairmont Hotel in Washington and warned that Trump would hurt the GOP’s prospects in the race for the White House and in down-ballot contests for House, Senate and governor. The speech, according to two sources present, was attended by a number of Republican governors, including Rick Scott of Florida, Pat McCrory of North Carolina and Phil Bryant of Mississippi.

The Cruz comeback plan

For Cruz, the stakes couldn’t be higher.

After winning the Iowa caucuses, the senator has suffered three consecutive third-place finishes. And after spending a year courting the religious vote, Cruz has seen his pristine image blemished by charges — directed at him by Trump and Rubio — that his campaign plays too rough.

On Thursday evening, Priority No. One will be to push back.

“He’s got to beat back the narrative that he and his campaign are masters of the dirty trick,” said Brett O’Donnell, a longtime Republican debate coach who advised Lindsey Graham.

The debate precedes a slate of Southern Super Tuesday primaries that has been Cruz’s focus — and from which, without a good showing, it may be hard for him to recover. That means that during the debate he’ll reinforce his pitch that he is a conservative-minded Southerner whom voters in states like Tennessee, Oklahoma and Arkansas can relate to. He’ll also be tailoring his message for his home state of Texas, which also votes on March 1 — and where anything short of a victory would be devastating.

“The fact that Texas is a must-win for Cruz makes me suspect a lot of his strategy will be aimed at fortifying his position there by really demonstrating knowledge and key issues for Texas voters,” said Phil Musser, a former Republican Governors Association executive director. “Home state appeal — and a win — is a must.”

In the lead-up to Super Tuesday, Cruz is seeking other ways to reinforce his Southern credentials. In recent weeks, he has been aggressively appealing to Rand Paul for an endorsement. Yet three sources close to the Kentucky senator said Paul had rebuffed Cruz, saying that he had no intention of endorsing anyone anytime soon. A Cruz spokesperson declined to comment.

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