While that exchange was the clearest violation of debate rules to date, the sources said, it followed a pattern: At multiple debates, [Donald] Trump has consulted with his campaign manager Corey Lewandowski backstage even though it was expressly forbidden by the networks.
Thursday night’s debate in Detroit marked a new extreme, however, as Lewandowski went directly onto the stage to meet with Trump during the commercial break. As in previous debates, Fox News had explicitly informed the campaigns that candidates were not allowed to communicate with their campaign staff during commercial breaks, the sources said.

The incident is reflective of what Donald Trump’s opponents are up against. Trump plays by no rules, and the media are too afraid or self-interested in the ongoing ratings show to object to, let alone enforce, restraints applicable to other candidates. It is also telling that Trump needs the help and is unable without someone spoon-feeding instructions to him to withstand an assault from a united front of his opponents.

And what do those opponents do? When Trump was bloodied at the end of the debate — despite his handler’s help — the candidates meekly offered that they would support Trump if he became the nominee. This followed a debate in which Trump was vulgar, insistent that he would order our troops to commit war crimes and entirely incapable of answering any policy question. When he was drowning, they threw him a life line.

Saturday at the Conservative Political Action Conference, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) gave a lovely, uplifting speech. He reminded the crowd that the future of the country is at issue. He recalled his underdog campaign for the Senate in 2010 against then-Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, when the “establishment” was against him. And, to conservatives already miffed by Trump’s decision to back out of his appearance at CPAC, Rubio reminded them of the fundamental precepts of conservatism — free-market economics. a strong national defense and reverence for the Constitution — and declared that conservatism must be more than an “attitude.” He took a glancing punch at Trump, saying he did not want the movement to be “hijacked” by someone who was not a conservative.

In a Q&A with CNN’s Dana Bash, he threw more gentle barbs Trump’s way. The American dream, he said, is not “about how many buildings have your name on them.” And he agreed with Bash that as a parent it was difficult to explain to his children the language being used in the presidential campaign. Given the perfect setup to lambaste Trump for saying in the debate he would order the military to commit war crimes, Rubio simply said a commander in chief should never tell our troops to break the law.

What Rubio did not do and seems unwilling to do is go for the jugular. Why not, as Mitt Romney has done, say outright that Trump is unfit to be president and will not get his support? Why not say flat-out the country is better than to elect a know-nothing bully?

The Rubio team insists theirs is the only campaign that in a sustained earned media way has hit Trump and whose outside groups are doing the same. It is indisputable that for months Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) bolstered Trump, helping to mainstream him and make him appear respectable to voters. None of Trump’s opponents has done more than Cruz did — before deciding it was in his interest to attack Trump — to unleash Trump on the GOP and the country. Ohio Gov. John Kasich refuses to say a critical word about Trump.

So, yes, Rubio has done more than the others to take on Trump. But as yet, Rubio is not winning states, his voting results in Saturday’s states were dreadful and the impression of someone lacking a winning edge and a knock-out blow is beginning to congeal. As it hardens it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. Rubio’s dismal showing in Saturday’s contests — some of his worst results to date, with not even a second-place in any of the 4 states — along with Cruz’s success in Maine and Kansas will fuel the perception Rubio is not the candidate to protect the party and country from Trump.

The Rubio team would say that their long-term approach will work. Rubio advisers are convinced the map is getting more hospitable. Recent polling shows the gap between Trump and Rubio narrowing in Florida to single digits. Rubio continues to maintain high favorables and is the only candidate whose appeal spans multiple geographic areas and demographic groups. Maybe all that will be enough to vault Rubio into first place in Florida and other states with March 15 primaries. If so, it will be vindication of his game plan. But if it does not, the comparison will be made to Rudy Giuliani who did not win an early state and mistakenly banked on Florida to rescue him. And many will question why Rubio did not go for the kill. They will wonder whether he could have knocked out Trump and saved the Republican Party had he only been willing to get tougher and tell the truth about Trump — that he is a menace to the country and no Republican in good conscience should support him.