Rubio, Cruz hope to slow Trump in tonight's debate

HOUSTON -- Presidential candidates Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz head into Thursday's Republican debate eager to seize one last chance to slow front-runner Donald Trump's momentum before next week's Super Tuesday mega-round of voting.

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Sens. Rubio and Cruz so far have shown little willingness to take on the former reality television star when the national spotlight shines brightest. But that may well change Thursday night, in the ninth Republican debate of the presidential campaign.

"The vast and overwhelming majority of Republicans do not want Donald Trump to be our nominee," Rubio told NBC, suggesting Trump is winning only because the other candidates are splitting the Republican voters who don't like him.

Trump's surprising hold on the top spot has remained strong in the raucous contest to pick a Republican candidate in the November election, despite his politically incorrect statements against Hispanics and Muslims, salty language and a self-funded campaign without spending on television advertising.

But Trump may well become the inevitable Republican after the Super Tuesday votes next week in 11 states, with 595 delegates at stake. So far, after four primary and caucus contests, Trump has 82 delegates, Cruz has 17 and Rubio has 16. A candidate must have 1,237 state delegates to win the Republican nomination at the party's convention this summer.

The New York billionaire predicted the relative civility until now between Rubio and himself won't last. Thursday's debate will take place just a few days before 11 states hold Republican elections that could either cement Trump's dominance, or let his rivals slow his march to his party's nomination.

One of the early casualties of the Republican presidential race, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, showed no reluctance Thursday to assail Trump head-on, calling him "a nut job" who's likely to win the Republican nomination but lose the general election.

Thursday's debate, with CNN and Telemundo as partners, is the only one of the season steered to a Spanish-speaking as well as English-speaking audience, so immigration could be a closely watched issue.

Vice-President Joe Biden said during a visit in Mexico on Thursday that some of the campaign rhetoric about Mexico has been "dangerous, damaging and incredibly ill-advised." Biden said the Republican candidates "do not represent the view of the vast majority of the American people."

The presidential campaign is now shifting to a broader new phase, making a strong debate performance even more important.

Trump won Nevada's presidential caucuses on Tuesday with more than 45 per cent of the vote, scoring his third consecutive primary victory in dominant fashion. Rubio edged Cruz for runner-up for the second straight time, with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush -- now out of the race -- Ohio Gov. John Kasich and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson far off the pace.

Cruz and Rubio are seeking to become the Trump alternative. Since the departure of Bush from the race, Rubio has won a number of endorsements from Republican leaders. The latest came Thursday from Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam.

On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton has South Carolina mostly to herself two days before the first-in-the-South primary, and she's using it to capitalize on her advantage over Bernie Sanders with black voters.

Clinton played up her allegiance to President Barack Obama at a rally Thursday and pledged to continue fighting for tougher gun laws -- two arguments that resonate with the African-American voters who wield tremendous influence in Saturday's primary.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, meanwhile, was spending Thursday traversing the Great Lakes region in states that hold early March primaries with much whiter electorates than South Carolina and the Deep South, where Clinton maintains a strong enough lead that could help her establish a clear earned-delegate boost in the coming weeks.


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