If [crscore]Marco Rubio[/crscore] is destined to lose his bid for the Republican presidential nomination — and, yes, that’s still an “if” — we learned Thursday night he will at least do so on his shield.
In the best debate performance of any candidate this primary cycle, the Florida senator took the fight to Donald Trump, at times exposing (often hilariously) the billionaire front-runner as a hypocrite and a policy lightweight. [crscore]Ted Cruz[/crscore] also had a good night, sometimes teaming up with Rubio to attack The Donald.
But it’s unclear who, exactly, will benefit from Thursday’s Battle Royale. Here are four possibilities:
1.) Teflon Trump — Just like every other time the media think Trump has been harmed, it turns out that none of the hits on him actually matter to voters. They want to burn down the Republican Party and Donald Trump is their chosen arsonist, history of liberal policies and moral indiscretions be damned. On Super Tuesday, Trump wins by bigger margins than expected everywhere, and takes a giant step closer toward the Republican nomination.
2.) Rubio Rises — Perhaps Rubio’s sustained attacks on Trump — in a addition to continued follow-up attacks in the days to come — catapult him to the clear number two position in the Republican race. This could manifest itself on Super Tuesday by Rubio winning a couple of states — maybe Minnesota, maybe Virginia — and coming in a close second in many others. This would help put Rubio on the path to the one-on-one race with Trump by March 15 he longs for, which is his only chance — chance, not guarantee — of winning the nomination outright.
3.) Cruz Emerges — Rubio and Cruz’s attacks both take a toll on Trump, but not so much that Rubio is actually propelled to victory in any state on Super Tuesday. Weakening Trump, however, helps Cruz score a strong victory in his home state of Texas, allowing Cruz to make the case that he is the only candidate who has bested Trump in not only one state, but two states, and therefore is best positioned to take on Trump one-on-one.
4.) Kasich The Nice Guy — The Rubio-Cruz-Trump battle bloodies everyone — except “Mr. Nice Guy” John Kasich, who refused to engage in the verbal street fight going on on-stage. (Voters quickly forget “Mr. Too Nice Guy” Ben Carson was even there.) Kasich’s positivity appeals to voters. As a result, the Ohio governor surges in the polls. He may not win any states on Super Tuesday, but Cruz loses to Trump in Texas, forcing him out of the race. Kasich goes on to win big in Michigan on March 8, which puts pressure on Rubio to drop out in order to give the Ohio governor the one-on-one fight all the non-Trump candidates on the Republican side desire.
One could imagine other scenarios, including everything continuing as is and all the non-Trump candidates stubbornly staying in all the way to the Republican convention. We shall see in the days ahead how the debate has changed the race — or, as is very possible, not changed it.