The Note: Debate Night in the Lone Star State

VIDEO: Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz Question Donald Trumps ConservatismPlayABCNews.com
WATCH Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz Question Donald Trump's Conservatism

NOTABLES

--HAPPENING TONIGHT: The CNN-Telemundo debate, the last GOP face off before Super Tuesday, takes place tonight at the University of Houston and features all five remaining Republican presidential candidates. The stakes may have been high at previous debates, but nothing like tonight, ABC’s SHUSHANNAH WALSHE notes. Both Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz need to try and slow down the Trump Train getting in clean jabs at the frontrunner and pulling off moments that are both positive and memorable. It's very likely Donald Trump will face questions about his taxes after Mitt Romney floated the idea on Fox News yesterday that there is possibly a "bombshell" in there. Meanwhile, the debate is taking place in a state that Cruz knows he must win. It's not just his home state, but a delegate bounty.

--TODAY ON THE TRAIL: Just two days away from the next contest in South Carolina, Hillary Clinton has four events in the Palmetto State, starting with a town hall this morning in Kingstree. Bill Clinton will also be dashing around the state, holding three "get out the vote" rallies in Rock Hill, Spartanburg and Winnsboro. Bernie Sanders is completely focused on Super Tuesday, which is just five days away. This morning he holds a rally in Berea, Ohio before traveling to Flint, Michigan where he will hold a community forum and likely discuss the water crisis. The visit comes just one day after the Clinton campaign released an ad featuring her trip to Flint. Tonight, he holds a rally in Chicago.  

--ANALYSIS -- ABC’s RICK KLEIN: Marco Rubio has had some fantastic debate performances, to go along with one memorably horrific one in New Hampshire. He’ll need the performance of his life Thursday night in Houston if he hopes to capture the Republican Party’s anti-Trump hopes – a potent force, still, even as the primary season gets later than it seems. Rubio telegraphed some punches Wednesday after arriving in Texas, hitting Donald Trump as someone who “isn’t a conservative” and for being too close to President Obama on healthcare and Israel, for starters. A caller to a Fox News program named Mitt Romney suggested a new line of attack, on Trump’s failure to release his tax returns. But shaking a Trump supporter’s convictions is highly improbable at this late stage, as Rubio and Ted Cruz are surely aware. That’s what makes another new part of the Rubio stump just as critical to his argument Thursday and beyond. He praised Ronald Reagan for being “realistic” but also “optimistic.” Indeed, Rubio will have to emerge from the debate as something close to the Reagan candidate of the generation, on stage with an increasingly desperate fellow young senator, an elder statesman in John Kasich, and, of course, Trump. Trump will get attacked, and he will attack back. But the fight to be the Trump alternative may ride on other, more subtle moments in the debate.

 

YESTERDAY ON THE TRAIL with ABC’s VERONICA STRACQUALURSI and PAOLA CHAVEZ

ROMNEY PREDICTS A ‘BOMBSHELL’ IN TRUMP’S TAX RETURNS. The 2012 Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, has a request for the candidates looking to become the party’s presidential pick this year: release your old tax returns. And the candidate whose taxes Romney is most interested in reviewing is GOP frontrunner Donald Trump, ABC’S VERONICA STRACQUALURSI and MICHAEL FALCONE report. “I think we have good reason to believe that there's a bombshell in Donald Trump's taxes,” Romney said in an interview with Fox News’ Neil Cavuto Wednesday. “Either he's not anywhere near as wealthy as he says he is or he hasn't been paying the kind of taxes we would expect him to pay, or perhaps he hasn't been giving money to the vets or to the disabled like he's been telling us he's been doing.” http://abcn.ws/24q5vsZ

WHAT TRUMP’S RIVALS NEED TO DO TO CATCH UP. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump celebrated his resounding victory in Tuesday’s Nevada caucuses, but almost as soon as he declared “we're winning, winning,” he was already thinking bigger. “It's going to be an amazing two months,” he said. “We might not even need the two months folks, to be honest, right?” The GOP front-runner’s confidence makes sense: With three straight wins, he looks increasingly likely to be on a glide path to land the Republican nomination. But there’s still hope for some of his rivals. ABC’s RYAN STRUYK, MICHAEL FALCONE and VERONICA STRACQUALURSI look at what Trump’s rivals would need to do to catch up to Trump. http://abcn.ws/1SUsGaW

TRUMP NABS FIRST CONGRESSIONAL ENDORSEMENTS. Trump has landed his first congressional endorsements yesterday, a potential sign some members of the Republican political establishment are coming to terms with the New York businessman securing the GOP presidential nomination. Rep. Chris Collins, R-New York, a wealthy former businessman from upstate New York, said in a statement Wednesday morning that Trump "has the unique qualifications to make America great again," ABC’s BENJAMIN SIEGEL notes. Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-California, told Politico yesterday morning that he will also support Trump’s bid for the GOP nomination: “We don’t need a policy wonk as president,” said Hunter, who previously supported Mike Huckabee's presidential bid. “We need a leader as president.” http://abcn.ws/1VEAHP7

4 TAKEAWAYS FROM THE GOP NEVADA CAUCUSES. Donald Trump's triumph in Tuesday's Nevada caucuses solidified his status as the front-runner for the Republican party. The results will also likely shed light on how the rest of the election contests will roll out. ABC’s JULIA JACOBO highlights the four biggest takeaways from the Nevada caucuses. http://abcn.ws/1Q0AwMB

SANDERS ADAMANT HE CAN WIN. Bernie Sanders got defensive during a press conference in Columbia, South Carolina yesterday, arguing that he is still in this “race to win it” and believes his team will pull off a political upset. The presidential candidate argued that he was not giving up on South Carolina even though he was leaving directly after the event for trips to Missouri, Oklahoma and Ohio, just days before the state's primary. “We are fighting here in South Carolina as hard as we can but within the context, you know, I think Secretary Clinton was in California the other day, I mean she is writing off the state, that’s the real world that we are living,” he said, ABC’s MARYALICE PARKS reports. http://abcn.ws/1VELdpC

 

WHAT WE’RE READING

“A LOOK INSIDE TRUMP'S GLOBAL DEALS EXPOSES TROUBLE IN MANY SPOTS,” by Bloomberg’s Campaign Finance reporter Tim Higgins and senior writer Stephanie Baker. “Donald Trump says his organization is in talks on more than 100 deals, 85 percent of them outside the U.S., and that if elected president he will bring to international relations the savvy he has demonstrated as a global deal maker. But an examination of his operations abroad reveals that, while he has made many millions selling his name, he has chosen a number of inexperienced -- even questionable -- partners, sometimes infuriated buyers and associates and moved late into saturated markets, producing less income than advertised.” http://bloom.bg/1QdPXit

 

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

TRUMP’S ‘AMAZING MIND’ ATTRACTED WIFE MELANIA. Melania Trump has opened up about her 11-year marriage to Donald Trump. She fell in love with her business tycoon husband for his “amazing mind,” “great energy” and his charm, the former model said. “We have a great relationship,” Trump said in an interview with MSNBC that aired Wednesday morning. Though she’s rarely seen on the campaign trail, Trump, 45, supports her husband “100 percent,” she said, even his controversial policies. ABC’s VERONICA STRACQUALURSI has more. http://abcn.ws/1Q0qmvl

 

WHO’S TWEETING?

@jonathanweisman: Trump Keeps Winning. Here’s What Could Make Him Lose. http://nyti.ms/1TzBlhJ  Meteor strike, World War III, alien invasion, human combustion

@edatpost: 8 in 10 Hispanic voters have an unfavorable view of Trump; more than 7 in 10 “very unfavorable” http://wapo.st/1OwMYiT?tid=ss_tw …

@mattbai: Does Trump have a governing ideology? Yes. That's the problem. https://www.yahoo.com/politics/how-president-trump-would-govern-1372330318045238.html?soc_src=social-sh&soc_trk=tw … via YahooPolitics

@russellberman: Incredibly, the debate over a Supreme Court nomination has now become a fight over photo-ops http://www.politico.com/story/2016/02/kelly-ayotte-supreme-court-219727 …

@ColinTReed: nice @shiraschoenberg sccop on Clinton going negative on Sanders in #mapoli http://bit.ly/1TGMaQp