HOUSTON, THEY HAVE A PROBLEM: The five-candidate field will face off in Houston shortly -- their last showdown before Super Tuesday. The CNN broadcast begins at 8:30 p.m. ET/7:30 p.m. CT.
The Republican field has shrunk considerably since the first debate in August, when there were 17 candidates split into two faceoffs, writes David A. Fahrenthold. But two things remain the same: Trump will still have the front-runner’s podium, at the center of the stage. And with four other candidates still in the race -- Cruz, Rubio, John Kasich and Ben Carson -- the rest of the field may still be too crowded to stop him.
DEBATE PREP: Tonight offers Donald Trump's rivals perhaps their best chance (and possibly their last) to put him on the defensive. Ted Cruz has the home field advantage, and the front-runner enters the night with some potential weak spots: there are few places where Trump's stumbling answers on his apparent Iraq war flip-flop are likely to play worse with primary voters than in George W. Bush's home state.
For the past few weeks, as Cruz and Trump have tangled, Marco Rubio has treaded carefully around Trump. But ahead of the debate, Rubio's been signaling a more aggressive posture, reports Sean Sullivan:
In remarks in Houston on Wednesday, Rubio took the rare step of attacking Trump by name at a campaign rally. And on Thursday morning, his campaign distributed to reporters a New York Times story about Trump's Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Fla., filling hundreds of positions with guest workers. Behind closed doors, Rubio's message has been even sharper, as he starts to build a case against Trump.
The moves, which mark a notable escalation in Rubio's criticism of Trump, come at a time when Trump threatens to run away from Rubio and the rest of the field. A new poll out Thursday shows him beating Rubio by 16 points in the Florida senator's home state.
TODAY IN TRUMP FEUDS: Lindsey Graham echoed Mitt Romney's tax attack, telling CNN that Trump was "probably hiding something" in his taxes. Later in the day, he raised the volume, calling him a "nut job" and "loser as a person" who was "ill-suited" to be president. (Trump has already used at least two of those on Graham this cycle too.)
And Romney continued to poke the bear, prompting another Trump tweetstorm -- and an incredulous reaction from Harry Reid, who made the same demand of Romney himself four years ago: "Couldn't they get someone else to do it?”
Mitt Romney, who was one of the dumbest and worst candidates in the history of Republican politics, is now pushing me on tax returns. Dope!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 25, 2016
TRUMP-ROMNEY #TBT: THE WAY THEY WERE
Me watching the Romney-Trump twitter fight right now. pic.twitter.com/DSdP60Tfmh— Blake Hounshell (@blakehounshell) February 25, 2016
THE BIG NUMBER: Trump's Super Tuesday baseline.
SUPER TUESDAY PREP: Today, Rubio's team pushed back at skeptics asking why the Florida senator doesn't seem to be winning his home state.
Media needs to chill. The FL Q poll #'s are way wrong. We are going to win Florida. Period. Take it to the bank.— Todd Harris (@dtoddharris) February 25, 2016
But the Quinnipiac poll released this week that had Rubio trailing Trump by 16 actually gave him his best showing (28 percent) in nearly a year. Of course, that's just one poll. So here's a list of the front-runners in every poll of the winner-take-all Florida primary for the past 6+ months:
Rubio's team still sees a path to the nomination. Actually, they see two paths, reports M.J. Lee -- one of which runs through the convention floor.
As the home state headaches continue for most of the Republican field, there was a bright spot for Ted Cruz new Monmouth poll out of Texas today: it had Cruz at 38, Trump at 23, and Rubio at 21. So based on multiple polls conducted over the past week, Cruz could be winning his home state by 15 points; he could be tied for the lead; or he could be somewhere in between. One of those things.
#TBT PROTIP: Pick your historically-resonant political metaphors carefully.
Memo to Cruz: Your Alamo metaphors sound tough but remember, everyone got killed there except women & children:https://t.co/svKwJEvdpH— Paul Kane (@pkcapitol) February 25, 2016
TRAIL MIX: You may have blocked out the extended media drama that led up to Thursday night's Republican debate. Here's a refresher.
--As of a few days ago, Donald Trump hadn't spent anything on TV ads in Super Tuesday states. Now he's spending roughly $900,000 on spots airing in half a dozen states.
--Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who served as campaign manager for her father Mike Huckabee's presidential bid, joined the Trump campaign as a senior adviser.
--The Senate is ready to vote on an aid package for Flint, but Ted Cruz is blocking movement while his staff reviews the bill. (The remaining Republican candidates are set to debate next week in Michigan.)(UPDATE: As of later Thursday night, Cruz was no longer blocking the package)
--No, Ted Cruz is not the Zodiac Killer.
--Here's a great rundown of the top 5 new presidential campaign predictions, some of which may or may not have been made on a dare. (Brace yourself for a list of piping #hottakes: "Marco Rubio is angling to be Donald Trump’s running mate"; "John Kasich will be the VP pick — for Hillary Clinton"; "Both Rubio and Ted Cruz are actually running for president in 2020"; "Maybe Trump is more popular with Latinos than we thought"; "There will be a viable independent candidate not named Michael Bloomberg.")
--One has already bitten the dust: Donald Trump appears to be about as popular with Hispanic voters as might be expected (8 in 10 Hispanic voters have an unfavorable view of Trump; more than 7 in 10 have “very unfavorable” view of him.)
--Rafael Cruz said that evangelicals who voted for Trump don’t deserve to call themselves evangelicals. (AUDIO)
--Former KKK grand wizard David Duke told his audience that voting against Trump would be "treason to your heritage" -- but he didn't endorse the mogul. Last year, Duke said Trump was "too Zionist" for him. Trump has long said he would repudiate any Duke endorsement.
QOTD: FOR THE RECORD, in comments released today.
Trump struck back on civility grounds:
FMR PRES of Mexico, Vicente Fox horribly used the F word when discussing the wall. He must apologize! If I did that there would be a uproar!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 25, 2016
#TBT CONTROVERSY: Today, Hillary Clinton was heckled at a South Carolina campaign stop by a black activist who "wanted [Clinton] to be confronted with that very racist thing she said" about "super-predators" 20 years ago, when crime was a major issue, reported Anne Gearan. ("They are often the kinds of kids that are called 'super-predators,'" Clinton said then. "No conscience, no empathy, we can talk about why they ended up that way, but first we have to bring them to heel.")
In a written response Thursday to The Washington Post's Jonathan Capehart, Clinton said she regretted the comment: “Looking back, I shouldn’t have used those words, and I wouldn’t use them today."
The confrontation comes as Clinton appears to be set for a big win in the state. thanks in large part to solid support from black voters. And in more evidence that the Clinton firewall may be mostly holding heading into March: In the Monmouth Texas poll out today that had Clinton leading Bernie Sanders 64-30, she was up 81-8 among black voters and 68-32 among Latino voters.
quick convo w/Bill Clinton who told me he/HRC having a much better time in SC than in 08 -b/c press less divisive on racial issues. Story tk— Glenn Thrush (@GlennThrush) February 25, 2016
(MORE CLINTON #TBT VIA CARLOS LOZADA: Twenty years later, what does "It Takes a Village" reveal about the Democratic front-runner?)
THE VIEW FROM THE FIELD:
BEYOND THE TRAIL: As liberal interest groups began to wage war over the Supreme Court vacancy, GOP Gov. Brian Sandoval of Nevada took himself out of the running.
YOUR DAILY TRAIL PIT STOP: Dateline: Houston