Why Trump Survived Every Attack From Rubio and Cruz

Marco Rubio went after Donald Trump hard on Thursday night, hoping to topple the New York real estate mogul from his perch at the top of the polls. Mike Stone/REUTERS

Updated | "If he hadn't inherited $200 million, you know where [Donald] Trump would be? Selling watches in Manhattan."

It was Marco Rubio's big moment, the one that was supposed to damage the GOP front-runner. It wasn't a bad line. The zinger illuminated that Trump wasn't self-made. It made him seem like the avatar of New York's worst values—a street hustler from pre-Giuliani Times Square.

Rubio's riposte got a laugh, but that was it. He had administered his blow too quickly, after a dizzying oppo dump of Trumpian facts—bankruptcies, lawsuits against Trump University, hiring illegal workers and so on. Like a hormonal teenager with control issues, Rubio blurted them out so quickly that the fusillade fell flat.

It's not just that Rubio's delivery faltered; it's that it was overpowered by Trump's impermeable defense, his rhetorical comfort level on TV, seasoned by decades in the public eye. Cruz and Rubio were children when Trump exploded into the public consciousness in the 1980s. He was a symbol of Gordon Gekko capitalism when they were collecting Power Rangers.

But Trump's great strength is also the way he's blurred ideological lines. He says Planned Parenthood does great things. He calls Ronald Reagan "somewhat conservative" instead of genuflecting or pretending Reagan was an inflexible ideologue. Trump says he won't let anyone die on the street. That seems like an unobjectionable position when it comes to health care, but it left Cruz apoplectic, accusing the billionaire of socialism, which is insane.

It's not that Trump can never be beaten. He may well be. But it won't be by Rubio and Cruz if they stick to their current strategy. They constantly charge that he's insufficiently conservative (no one cares), a hypocrite (they all are, people say) and a hustler (people like knockoff watches). If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result, then Cruz and Rubio need to be committed.

No one seems to go after Trump for not caring about the little guy. His opponents didn't make enough of his legal battles with an old woman defending her home from Trump's ambitions to build a parking lot on the site. It quickly turned into a debate over eminent domain, not a woman at the end of her life.

There's plenty to use against Trump, namely the way he's treated the help. The writer Mark Bowden once depicted him as a rich maniac screaming at his gardeners and handymen. As long as people see Trump as outrageous in service of America, they love him. If they see him as indifferent to or hostile toward the little guy, then he's going to hurt. That's a battle Hillary Clinton with her fighting-for-you message could win.

Instead, Cruz and Rubio fumble sound bites. "The Palestinians aren't a real estate deal," Rubio kept repeating, even though it's a malapropism. (I'm pretty sure the Czechs aren't a real estate deal). And if Trump sees the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a kind of real estate deal, he's no crazier than every president since 1967. But in their effort to try to portray him as a mogul in a kaffiyeh, Cruz and Rubio stepped all over themselves without likely picking up a single vote in Boca Raton.

Maybe a year from now, when President Rubio is in his first 100 days, these criticisms will seem lame, fleeting. But I suspect it's much more likely the first 100 days of the new administration will belong to a president from New York—Trump or Clinton.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that an Atlantic City resident lost her home in a legal battle with Donald Trump. She did not.