Key questions every GOP candidate not named Donald J. Trump had to confront during prep for the Thursday night GOP presidential debate: Do I want to aggressively attack Trump as the ill-prepared, ill-tempered, ill-mannered, curiously coiffed charlatan of a carnival barker that he is? Or do I want to be his running mate? Kind of a tough call. There are worse things in this world than being Trump's running mate (though none immediately come to mind). And if Trump crashes and burns as the nominee -- assuming the charred debris doesn't fall on your head -- being his running mate could put you in line for the 2020 nomination.
And if somehow Trump becomes president, his veep could be advantageously situated for when Trump's head explodes when Mexico opts not to pay for the wall.
All of this crossed my mind pre-debate as we pondered just how nasty the event would get. History, of course, is replete with White House candidates who said bad things about each other and then became running mates. It's kind of an odd tradition in The Greatest Nation Ever.
Rubio-Cruz tag team
Early on, it was clear U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas weren't worrying about running-mate status nor about saying things that could come up when and if the time comes for them to embrace Trump as their party's nominee. With the front-runner standing between them, the Rubio-Cruz tag team made a Cuban-American sandwich of the part-hammy, part-cheesey Trump, with Rubio often taking the lead.
Among Cruz's better shots was an obviously rehearsed one questioning Trump's dedication to the anti-illegal-immigration cause: "I really find it amazing that Donald believes that he is the one who discovered the issue of illegal immigration," Cruz said. "I can tell you, when I ran for Senate here in the state of Texas, I ran promising to lead the fight against amnesty, promising to fight to build a wall. And in 2013, when I was fighting against the 'gang of eight' amnesty bill, where was Donald? He was firing Dennis Rodman on 'Celebrity Apprentice.'" Good one, but I thought Rubio, thinking quickly on his feet, did the best job of exposing Trump for an empty suit when it comes to some difficult topics. You know, the ones Trump says he can quickly and easily solve because he's built apartments in Manhattan.
What's to add?
The topic was Obamacare and exactly what Trump would replace it with. For Rubio, it was an attack based in part on his own infamous and repetitious defense against now-ex-candidate Chris Christie in the recent New Hampshire debate.
"Now he's repeating himself," Rubio said as Trump failed to answer the health-care question.
"I don't repeat myself. Here's the guy who repeats himself," Trump shot back. "I watched him repeat himself five times four weeks ago." Rubio: "I saw you repeat yourself five times five seconds ago." And Rubio ended the exchange with this on-point summary of Trump's campaign: "Everyone's dumb. He's going to make America great again. He's going to win, win, win, he's winning in the polls." CNN's Dana Bash tried to restore order by asking Trump, who still hadn't fully answered the health-care question, if he had anything to add.
"No, there's nothing to add," Trump said. "What's to add?" At another point, Rubio summed up Trump's success in life thusly: "Here's a guy that inherited $200 million. If he hadn't inherited $200 million, you know where Donald Trump would be right now? Selling watches in Manhattan." Trump, characteristically, resorted to offense when the moment called for defense.
'Choke artist' and 'liar'
"This guy's a choke artist," he said of Rubio.
"And this guy's a liar," he said of Cruz.
So there's that for the Democrats.
All in all, it made for a decent night for Cruz to the extent it hurts Trump in Texas. Right now, Texas is what matters most for Cruz, who may not have a chance of beating Trump at any of the other 11 nominating contests Tuesday. Cruz is in a tricky position. He also doesn't want Rubio to accumulate many, if any, delegates in Texas. But not losing to Trump is Cruz's top immediate priority.
If Cruz somehow loses his home state, we very well may have seen the last of him on the debate stage.
Write Ken Herman, a columnist for the Austin American-Statesman, at email@example.com.