Republican Presidential Race Comes to a Head in North Texas

Marco Rubio is late. The Florida senator, the guy best positioned to take a run at Donald Trump and save the GOP from itself, had a late night in Houston on Thursday, teaming up with Ted Cruz to take repeated swings at Trump in a debate at the University of Houston. So he's a little late to his second major Dallas rally of 2016.

A decent-sized crowd waits for the 2010-elected Tea Partier at Klyde Warren Park. There are kids — one mom notes it was easier to take her kids places when they were homeschooled, "We woulda just called this school," she says. Plus, there are dogs and a whole lot of Rubio gear. As the crowd gets warmed up, their commitment to their man is affirmed. They've already voted for Rubio, they cheer at the master of ceremonies when he notes that Texas early voting ends Friday. The crowd is not here to be persuaded. They are here to be affirmed. They need to know that their party has not been completely ceded to Trump, that their slightly more reasonable voices can still be heard over the din created by the New York real-estate developer.

When Trump takes the stage at his own Friday rally in North Texas a few hours later in Fort Worth, his supporters need no such reassurance. They've filled most of Cowtown's cavernous convention center, waiting in a blocks-long line as protesters driving Mexican flag-bedecked cars and trucks circled the arena and the opportunists that flood Trump's events with buttons, shirts and "Make America Great Again" hats flogged their wares. They hoot and holler for Chris Christie, who endorsed Trump Friday morning in hopes that being crazy enough to do so will net him the vice presidency or, at worst, he'll become Trump's attorney general. They shout down protesters, who do a decent job of dispersing throughout the crowd and laugh at Trump's shtick, which is getting a little worn but is still amusing. 
"[Trump] will come in and strong arm a bunch of these people," one Trump supporter says on the way into the rally. "He can't be any worse, He's going to be different, at least."

When Rubio finally makes it onto the Klyde Warren stage 57 minutes after his rally's scheduled 9 a.m. start. He does something that, until Thursday night at the earliest, he'd yet to do so far in his largely fruitless campaign for the presidency. He goes in on Trump with gusto. Rubio calls the front-runner a con artist, questioning the conservative credentials of a guy who's previously said he was pro-choice and in favor of gay rights. He mocks Trump, a frequent tweeter, for some of the misspelled vitriol the tangerine-hued former reality show host tossed at Rubio the night before — Trump called him, among other things, a "chocker." He calls on voters to unmask Trump for the charlatan that Rubio says Trump is, prompting a woman in the crowd to mutter "that's retarded" and leave the rally in a huff. Faced with his own political mortality, Rubio, who has yet to win a primary and trails Trump in the polls in every single Super Tuesday state, gets down in the mud with The Donald. He's late to it, but he seems to be having fun, exercising the pent-up anger that's been building as Trump's moved from being a joke to being a cautionary fable about ignoring burgeoning xenophobia and nationalism in service of other ends in a little less than a year's time. 
"He wanted a full-length mirror. Maybe to make sure his pants weren't wet — I don't know," Rubio says, mocking Trump's nerves during a commercial break at Thursday night's debate.

Trump, working with the benefit of having heard Rubio's remarks, tells Fort Worth that Rubio had to have his makeup applied "with a trowel" at the debate, something that didn't, Trump says, have anything to do with Rubio's ears — which, it should be noted, do look like they belong on a Mr. Potato Head. He attacks Rubio for his sometimes robotic stage performances, and says that the first-term senator will choke in the future because he's always choked in the past. Trump, in his funniest bit, does a solid impression of the time Rubio was overcome by thirst during his 2013 response to President Obama's State of the Union address. A lot of the crowd leaves as Trump's speech meanders toward the end of the lunch hour. They're greeted by protesters yelling about forgotten Klan hoods, but don't seem ready to change their minds. Trump may not provide any details about how he intends to accomplish any of the stuff — the border wall, dragging foreign factories back to the United States or replacing the Affordable Care Act with "something great" — that he says he will, but that just puts him on a level playing field with the Democrats, a guy headed back to work tells his buddy, who'd been complaining that there was no way Trump could win a general election.

The Texas Primary is March 1, Super Tuesday. Trump, who has won three of the GOP's first four nominating contests, leads the polls in every Super Tuesday state but Texas, where he's in a statistical dead heat with Cruz.
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Stephen Young has written about Dallas news for the Observer since 2014. He's a Dallas native and a graduate of the University of North Texas.
Contact: Stephen Young