Game over, losers. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)
Opinion writer

THE MORNING PLUM:

It’s still very possible that Donald Trump won’t win the GOP nomination. His GOP rivals — particularly Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio — will obviously fight him to the bitter end. If a clear establishment alternative — such as Rubio — emerges, senior Republicans will unite behind him, particularly if Trump continues to roll along.

But last night’s GOP debate suggests that in one important way, Republicans have already surrendered to Trump: they have mostly given up on trying to resist the terms of the debate as he has set them, and have mostly accepted that the battle will be fought on his turf.

Two major exchanges from last night’s debate drive this home. The first came when a moderator asked the candidates to say whether they agreed with Trump’s call for a temporary ban on non-citizen Muslims from entering the United States.

John Kasich kinda sorta broke with Trump a bit, saying in an aside that “we don’t want to put everybody in the same category,” and Chris Christie did flatly say that “you can’t just ban all Muslims,” but both men seemed more eager to flaunt their toughness towards Syrian refugees. Rubio and Cruz answered the question mainly by blaming the very existence of Trump’s proposal on Obama’s weakness.

Only Jeb Bush tried to mount a serious argument against Trump’s Muslim ban, which Trump effortlessly swatted away by declaring, “I want security for this country.” But none of the other candidates ventured any meaningful or substantive argument against it. (In any case, some Bush donors have now indicated they think his campaign is on life support.)

This is not what was supposed to happen. For months, the chatter in media and political circles held that at some point, one or more of Trump’s rivals would rise up and confront his simplistic xenophobia and demagoguery with the force of a real argument, which would remind everyone that Trumpism is not what the GOP is really about. This just hasn’t happened in any meaningful sense. And there is no sign that it is going to. As Jonathan Chait puts it, a strange defeatism about Trumpism has taken hold among Republicans.

The second key moment came towards the end, when Cruz and Rubio engaged in an epic showdown over immigration. Rubio made his now-familiar argument that it’s disingenuous of Cruz to attack him as soft on amnesty because Cruz once supported legalization. Cruz dismissed that, pointing out that the two have fundamentally differed, and continue to do so, on the core question in the debate: whether or not to legalize the 11 million undocumented immigrants in this country.

Cruz is right about this. But the important point here is that Rubio did not seriously defend the idea of legalization. Instead he claimed the entire immigration debate has been recast by events — that it’s no longer about whether to legalize the undocumented but instead is about the ways radical jihadists are trying to exploit the immigration system. “This issue has to be now more than anything else about keeping America safe,” Rubio said.

It’s hard not to read this as a partial surrender to Trump’s emotional framing of the issue, i.e., that migrants are primarily a cause for suspicion and fear. This, from the GOP’s onetime Great Latino Hope, the candidate who took an enormous risk by embracing the idea that those who are here illegally, but want to work and generally contribute lawfully to their new American communities, should be given a chance to transition from the shadows into public participation in American life. Now the immigration debate is no longer about the broad, complex questions of fairness and justice that are at the core of whether the undocumented should be given that chance. Instead, the debate is over what to do about the notion that immigration risks admitting sinister threats into the country.

Trump set the terms of this debate at least six months ago. And that has not changed. Perhaps as the nominee Rubio might be able to pivot back to supporting some form of legalization and even citizenship, something he has left the door ajar to doing later. But the battle for the nomination itself looks likely to unfold largely within the parameters of the debate as Trump has established them.

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* TRUMP’S NEW AD SHOWS HE’S DRIVEN THE DEBATE: Trump just released a new ad that shows footage of him saying this to a cheering crowd:

“We are going to take our country, and we’re gonna fix it. We’re going to make it great again. We are going to fix our health care. We are going to take care of our vets. We are going to fix our military. We are going to strengthen our borders. We’re going to build a wall. But we are going to strengthen our borders. We are going to make it great again. We’re going to make it greater than ever before.”

On immigration, how much has that message changed since Trump released his plan six months ago?

* TRUMP’S LEAD CONTINUES TO SWELL: A new NBC/WSJ poll finds that Donald Trump is now backed by 33 percent of Republican primary voters nationally. Ted Cruz is at 20, Marco Rubio is at 13, Ben Carson is at 12. Jeb Bush and Chris Christie are in single digits. Note:

In a three-way contest featuring the Top 3 Republicans in the poll, Trump gets 40 percent, Cruz 31 percent and Rubio 26 percent, underscoring the overall strengthen out of the outsider/insurgent wing of the Republican Party.

So even Trump and Cruz battling it out down to the wire hardly guarantees that Rubio could consolidate the “establishment lane” vote to win.

* GOP VOTERS WARM TO PRESIDENT TRUMP: Another tidbit from the new NBC/WSJ poll:

Back in March, only 23 percent of Republican primary voters said they could see themselves supporting the real-estate mogul. Now that number stands at 65 percent.

Both Cruz and Rubio do better than Trump does on this question, but it still remains striking that President Trump is now acceptable to nearly two thirds of GOP voters.

* MAJORITY OF AMERICANS LIKED OBAMA’S SPEECH: A new NBC/Survey Monkey poll finds:

Overall, 55% of the 31.3 million people who tuned in to President Barack Obama’s final State of the Union address on Tuesday night felt positively about his remarks. This majority approval may be artificially high, however, because more Democrats watched or followed the speech than Republicans.

You’ll be startled to hear, however, that only 15 percent of Republican viewers were satisfied or enthusiastic about the speech, while 84 percent of them were dissatisfied or angry about it.

* RUBIO AND CRUZ SLUG IT OUT OVER IMMIGRATION: Benjy Sarlin looks at one of the big battles of last night’s debate, in which Rubio claimed Cruz used to support legalization, to blunt Cruz’s attacks on him as pro-amnesty. But this one line from Cruz is the core of the issue:

“Marco supports legalization and citizenship for 12 million illegals. I opposed and oppose legalization and citizenship.”

This is simply true. Rubio backed comprehensive reform and has left open the possibility of legalization and citizenship. Cruz never backed legalization and has since flatly ruled it out.

* IS VAST INEQUALITY NECESSARY? Paul Krugman makes the case that U.S. politics is largely an argument over whether we should tax the rich more to fund a more robust social safety net, arguing that this is defensible on moral grounds (since success is at least partly luck) and would not harm the economy by reducing the incentive of the “job creators”:

Recent experience has not been kind to the conservative position. President Obama pushed through a substantial rise in top tax rates, and his health care reform was the biggest expansion of the welfare state since L.B.J. Conservatives confidently predicted disaster, just as they did when Bill Clinton raised taxes on the top 1 percent. Instead, Mr. Obama has ended up presiding over the best job growth since the 1990s.

Of course, recent experience has been kind to the conservative position in the minds of many GOP voters, who believe that unemployment rate is higher today than when Obama took office.

* AND THE QUOTE OF THE DAY, TERRORIZED-BY-TRUMP EDITION: Via Politico, a Republican National Committee-man suggested to a roomful of party officials that Trump’s threat to run as a third party candidate had paralyzed the party and rendered it incapable of stopping him.

“We’re almost terrorized as members of our party,” the official said. “As a party we owe it to ourselves to speak up, and not let the tail wag the dog, and not let someone say, all of a sudden, ‘If you don’t play my game, then I’m running as an independent.'” Better not treat Trump unfairly, guys!