Marco Rubio was ready to fight and other takeaways from the latest GOP debate

Sen. Marco Rubio, left, and Donald Trump face off during the Republican presidential debate in Houston on Thursday.

Sen. Marco Rubio, left, and Donald Trump face off during the Republican presidential debate in Houston on Thursday.

(David J. Phillip / Associated Press )

A slimmer field of Republican candidates — just five remain — took the stage Thursday night for their 10th debate and last face-to-face session before Super Tuesday, when close to half the delegates needed to win the GOP nomination are up for grabs. It was a loud and raucous affair. With the stage lights in Houston still bright, here are five takeaways.

Marco Rubio ate his Wheaties

After long shying away from a direct confrontation with Donald Trump, Marco Rubio went at him early, caustically and relentlessly.

Among other attacks, the Florida senator accused Trump of hypocrisy, saying the candidate who has made fighting illegal immigration the centerpiece of his campaign has, in fact, a history of hiring illegal immigrants.

He portrayed him as a charlatan, saying his Trump University is a “fake school” that amounts to an enormous money-making scam.

Perhaps most pointedly, he questioned the billionaire's oft-touted business acumen — clearly getting under his skin -- by suggesting Trump succeeded only because of the enormous head start he got with family money. Without that inheritance, "you know where Donald Trump would be right now?” Rubio taunted. “Selling watches in Manhattan.”

The question, which is obviously unanswerable, is how different the Republican presidential race might look right now had Rubio — his back pressed to the wall — been that aggressive from the start.

Teflon Trump

It’s tough to debate a candidate who makes up his own facts and creates his own reality.

Trump once more demonstrated a willingness to say things that are plainly untrue, claiming, for instance, the U.S. is being overrun by illegal immigrants at a time evidence shows that illegal immigration is in decline.

He also chastised the former president of Mexico for using a “filthy, disgusting word” in rejecting Trump’s assertion the country would be forced to pay for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border — a word that Trump has notably used at his campaign rallies on more than one occasion.

He was pugnacious and rude throughout the evening, cutting off other candidates and making little effort to hide his obvious contempt for his rivals.

As it happens, that’s a large part of Trump’s appeal.

And his utter lack of detail — on healthcare, balancing the budget and policy questions — should surprise precisely no one.

Swing and miss!

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz has more at stake on Super Tuesday than any candidate in the race. His home state votes along with several other Southern states. If Cruz falls short of a banner performance, his campaign could be essentially over.

Even so, the champion debater was far less than the commanding presence he had been in earlier sessions and more than once allowed Trump, a novice, to get the better of their exchanges.

At one point, a sneering Trump ticked off his triumphs over Cruz — in three of the four nominating contests held so far — and his overwhelming lead in opinion polls in most of the upcoming states. When Cruz ventured that Trump was losing to Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton in head-to-head polling, Trump parried that he was still doing better than Cruz.

"If I can't beat her, you're really going to get killed, aren't you?" Trump scoffed.

That shut down the loquacious Texan.

Brother from another planet

John Kasich sounded like he dropped on the debate stage from another time and place — one that is kinder and gentler, to use the phrase of former President George H.W. Bush, who was seated in the hometown audience and greeted with a prolonged ovation.

In his opening statement, Kasich offered a homily of sunshine and light. “To all the young people that are out there, your hopes, your dreams, pursue them,” he said earnestly into the camera. “Shoot for the stars. America's great, and you can do it.”

Ohio’s governor maintained his sober mien and above-the-fray stance throughout the debate, offering thoughtful, substantive responses that seemed entirely out of place amid the mud-heaving that characterized the debate and the molten anger of this election season.

Caveat emptor

Beware of snap judgments, including those you’ve just read. Trump was widely seen as having hurt himself in the last GOP debate, when he went after President George W. Bush in unusually strident terms.

Trump was booed by the South Carolina crowd when he called the war in Iraq a “big, fat mistake” and said Bush lied about Iraq possessing weapons of mass destruction, his justification for going to war. There was some evidence Trump may have hurt himself with his debate performance, as late-deciding voters broke in favor of other candidates.

On the other hand, Trump won South Carolina handily, so any damage was not enough to make a difference in the final outcome.

Twitter: @markzbarabak