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Essential Politics: The most important night for anti-Trump foes

I’m Christina Bellantoni, this is Essential Politics, and you’re invited to come play bingo with us this evening.

Let’s face it — as political events go, tonight’s Republican debate is about as make-or-break as you get.

The setting (Florida) is the state that could end things for Sen. Marco Rubio. The date (five days before major primaries) puts a punctuation mark on time running out for establishment Republicans who want to deny Donald Trump the party nomination. The stakes (yuge!) are high for three of the men who will be on the stage.

We know that voters in several crucial primary states made up their minds in the final days of the race, and that debates have proved influential. Can Rubio stand out in his home state? Can Ohio Gov. John Kasich seize on momentum showing him within striking distance in his home state? How will Texas Sen. Ted Cruz attempt to win over the voters he has been losing to Trump?

On the other hand, it may not matter when it comes to the GOP nomination. Nothing anyone has thrown at Trump has shaken the support of his ardent backers, who make up about 4 in 10 Republican voters.

But as as David Lauter explained, get outside the GOP primaries and the picture looks very different. Trump's image with the wider public is extremely negative and getting worse.

NUMBERS GAME

Mark Z. Barabak finds Ohio is the only state that’s close in the grouping of states where Trump foes are attempting to stop — or at least slow — his march to the nomination.

For the Democrats, Hillary Clinton nabbed 86 delegates from Tuesday’s contests, and remains far ahead of Sen. Bernie Sanders when you include the party leaders and local officials known as superdelegates.

It can get complicated, so we’re tracking the delegate race so you don’t have to.

And to find out what’s happening on the campaign trail at any given point, keep an eye on Trail Guide and follow us at @latimespolitics.

DEMOCRATIC FACE-OFF

Sanders and Clinton squared off in the most extensive forum yet focusing on immigration policy, arguing over who is more friendly toward immigrants. The debate in Florida was a stark reminder of the wide gulf between Democrats and Republicans, whose presidential candidates have emphasized increasing border security or deporting immigrants who are in the country illegally, as Chris Megerian and Michael A. Memoli write.

And Kate Linthicum caught that Clinton's pledge to differ from President Obama’s deportations policy by focusing on deporting "violent criminals, terrorists" and others who want to do harm actually is Obama's policy almost verbatim.

From talk about "the most beautiful tall wall" to a standing ovation, we caught every moment.

WATCH THE GOP DEBATE WITH US

Tonight’s the night!

There’s still time to RSVP for the free L.A. Times debate watch party at The Regent in downtown Los Angeles. Join us!

We’ll start with a political panel featuring me, John Myers and Seema Mehta, and we’ll be raffling off prizes and playing the best debate bingo in the business.

Doors open at 4:30 p.m.

FINAL VOTE ON TOBACCO?

All eyes in Sacramento are on the state Senate this morning, where a package of closely watched tobacco regulation bills could be sent to Gov. Jerry Brown by day’s end.

We reported on these bills last week as they made their way through the Assembly, efforts that include raising California’s smoking age to 21. One of the bills, regulating electronic cigarettes, was the subject of some last-minute lobbying on Wednesday. Patrick McGreevy reports that industry officials met privately with the governor’s staff to urge that Brown veto the bill if it makes it to his desk.

And one more thing to watch: If the Senate takes action on the tobacco bills, it would also likely adjourn the Legislature’s special session on healthcare. That would mean one of 2015’s most talked about laws, allowing aid-in-dying rules for the terminally ill, would officially take effect as soon as June 8.

You can track what’s happening each day in Sacramento on our Essential Politics news feed.

RECOGNIZING A LOS ANGELES ICON

Next week, a red oak will be planted on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol to recognize the late Rep. Edward Roybal, who represented Los Angeles in Congress for 30 years and was the first Latino from California to serve in Congress since 1879.

Roybal co-founded the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute, and founded the National Assn. of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. He was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2014.

His daughter, Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, led the effort to have the tree planted, and will attend the event along with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and other congressional leaders.

TODAY’S ESSENTIALS

— Is pouring bullet train money into water development projects a good idea? George Skelton says the ballot initiative proposal may be too good to be true.

— Photographer Bryan Chan opens up on how he captured that iconic Nancy Reagan photo.

— Police arrested Ricardo DeAratanha as he was on assignment for the L.A. Times photographing Reagan’s memorial service.

Rep. Darrell Issa returns to South by Southwest this weekend.

— Business columnist David Lazarus remembers that time Trump tried to get him fired.

— Cartoonist David Horsey considers the subject of tiny hands and goes there.

LOGISTICS

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