- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 2, 2016

It took six months before the first opponent was able to land a memorable blow against Donald Trump on the debate stage, but Republican strategists — and the other candidates in the race — are hoping they have finally solved their problem with the party’s front-runner.

The key moment came when Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida leveled a triple-barrel blast at Mr. Trump, accusing him of hiring illegal workers to build Trump Tower, scamming students at Trump University and having little meat on the bones of his health care plan.

It served as a hallelujah moment for the anti-Trump forces inside the Republican Party who had been miffed by the inability of his rivals to effectively land punches against Mr. Trump and highlight what they saw as his lack of policy chops.

Rubio finally turned to mockery, and when it comes to defining a blowhard who makes no effort at serious policy, mockery works,” said Kevin Sheridan, a Republican Party strategist. “Until now, candidates were far too conventional in pointing out policy differences. It never worked because Trump was able to change the subject with an outrageous statement — and the media is always going to chase the rabbit.”

Round two is expected to kick off Thursday when the remaining candidates — Mr. Trump, Mr. Rubio, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Ohio Gov. John Kasich — meet in Detroit for the 11th Republican presidential debate.

Not on the stage will be retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who announced Wednesday that he no longer sees a path to victory and is shifting his campaign into a different mode.

Mr. Trump holds a lead in the count of delegates who will decide the nomination at July’s convention, but the matter is far from settled.

His rivals are prepared to sharpen their attacks before the March 15 primaries in Ohio and Florida, where the winners will take all of the states’ delegates. These contests could reshape the race.

Meanwhile, the angst over Mr. Trump’s rise is growing, and some have come to blame the press for not doing more to vet the candidate.

“I think in fairness, the news media is not interested in covering policy differences,” said former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, who also led the Republican National Committee in the 1990s. “They are interested in the horse race, what is the latest poll and in the mud-wrestling.

“You see that in the debates, and you see that in most, but not all, of the coverage,” he said. “When the candidates have put out strong papers on policy — including very important policy subjects like the economy, debt, deficits, taxes, usually some think tanks will write something about it, but the mainstream media just shrugs its shoulders, which is a big advantage for the ones that are weak or inconsistent on policy.”

Mr. Barbour added, “If this campaign had revolved around public policy issues and the positions of the candidates, many voters would have a very different perception of the race.”

Others said the candidates underestimated Mr. Trump’s staying power and are now scrambling to make up for lost time that they could have been spending drawing clear distinctions with Mr. Trump.

“Every election is different, and this one is really different and campaigns were slow to figure out how dramatically different this cycle has been, and for that reason the policy discussions got back-burnered,” said Charlie Gerow, a Republican Party strategist.

Mr. Rubio has been asked repeatedly why he didn’t begin his attacks sooner and, like Mr. Barbour, he blamed the press.

“I thought, like many of us, Donald Trump would be exposed by the media and others,” he said. “Unfortunately, I think he has gotten a real pass in the media over the last few months.”

He said that after seeing Mr. Trump win in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada, he changed his mind on tactics.

During the last debate, he raised questions about his business dealings and badgered him to provide more details about his health care plan other than letting companies sell insurance across state lines.

“I see him repeat himself every night. He says five things: Everyone’s dumb; he’s going to make America great again; we’re going to win, win win; he’s winning in the polls; and the lines around the state — every night,” Mr. Rubio said.

Mr. Sheridan said Mr. Rubio successfully packaged the attack — something he will need to keep doing.

“Everyone says they want substance, but stinging takedowns and sound bites work better. So what’s a candidate to do? Well, Rubio did it. He delivered a health care hit on Trump at the debate with humor, skill and a heavy dose of mockery,” the strategist said. “Rubio has now crossed an important threshold in redefining Trump as unserious. Now he has the chance to pivot back to substance.”

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