ANALYSIS: Marco Rubio Creates 2-Man Race, but Late Attacks May Not Stall Trump Train

PHOTO: Sen. Marco Rubio, Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz speak and gesture during a Republican presidential primary debate at The University of Houston on Feb. 25, 2016, in Houston.PlayDavid J. Phillip/AP Photo
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A candidate at tonight’s Republican debate in Houston was called a fraudulent, lying huckster who bankrupts companies, hires undocumented immigrants, makes clothes in Mexico and China, hides his tax returns and would be “selling watches in Manhattan” if he hadn’t inherited a fortune.

And Donald Trump? He chastised a former politician for using the F word on television. (Trump only called one rival a “choke artist” and another a “basket case.”)

A frustrated Republican establishment finally saw its leading candidates take on Trump, boldly and directly. The charge was led by an energized Sen. Marco Rubio, and seconded at times by an against-the-ropes Sen. Ted Cruz, who together represent the GOP’s most realistic options around Trump.

Rubio prosecuted the most effective case against Trump, in part, by flipping the script on him around a memorable episode from New Hampshire.

Trump wasn’t answering with details of a health care plan – “You’ll have so many different plans” – when Rubio sensed an opening.

“Now he's repeating himself,” Rubio said.

Trump reminded him of the debate from early February: “I watched him repeat himself five times four weeks ago.”

“I saw you repeat yourself five times four seconds ago,” Rubio countered.

Rubio unloaded on Trump the contents of an entire opposition-research book. There were mentions of Trump clothing lines, the defunct Trump University, his past support of liberal positions on immigration and health care, and his use of undocumented workers from Poland. (“Google it. Donald Trump, Polish workers,” Rubio said.)

It was a clear attempt to get under Trump’s skin, and it seemed to work at times. But the attacks might have been more effective spaced out a bit – and if they had flown with similar ferocity starting last summer, before Republican voters started buying what Trump was selling.

There were flashes of the old Trump, insulting a questioner for having “very few” listeners, saying Rubio sweats so much it looked like he just came out of a swimming pool, taunting Cruz to “swing for the fences” in attacking him on stage.

“This guy’s a choke artist, and that guy’s a liar,” Trump said, referring to Rubio and Cruz, on his right and on his left. “Other than that, I rest my case.”

At the same time, though, Trump the front-runner turned toward the general election. He praised Planned Parenthood for helping “millions and millions of people,” cast himself as the best candidate to take on Hillary Clinton, and touted his ability to change the nature of the GOP.

“I’m bringing people – Democrats over, and independents over. And we’re building a much bigger, much stronger Republican Party,” Trump said.

Cruz, debating in his hometown, in a must-win state, joined Rubio in sowing doubts about Trump.

“I want you to think about if this man is the nominee, having the Republican nominee on the stand in court being cross-examined about whether he committed fraud,” Cruz said.

The night, though, belonged to Rubio, who had one of the best debate nights of any candidate a few weeks after having one of the worst. For voters and party leaders looking for a Trump alternative, they saw one on display.

“A deal is a deal,” Trump said, speaking about bringing peace to the Middle East.

“A deal is not a deal when you’re dealing with terrorists,” Rubio said.

But the calendar and the math are stubborn. Rubio has no realistic path that doesn’t involve other candidates leaving the race, and fast. None of the other candidates, save Trump, do either.

Rubio showed it’s possible to beat Trump in a debate. That’s not the same, though, as showing he can be beaten in the election.