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Long IslandColumnistsDan Janison

Donald Trump weathers debate attacks from Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz

Republican presidential candidates Marco Rubio, left, and Donald

Republican presidential candidates Marco Rubio, left, and Donald Trump argue during the Republican presidential primary debate at the University of Houston Thursday, Feb. 25, 2016. Credit: AP

Once again, it was all about Donald Trump, in a pre-Super Tuesday debate that had the air of a pro wrestling exhibition.

Rival Sens. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz got a few hard shots in against the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination. And Trump, again, casually dished out degrading remarks against both, contemptuously frowning and calling one a choke artist and the other a liar.

Between them, the two leading Trump challengers raised the alleged “fake university” for which he’s been sued, past funding of Democrats, his remarks on neutrality toward Israel, his vagueness about how he would replace Obamacare, his bankruptcies, settled charges of his hiring of illegal workers years ago, and his flip-flops on abortion and denials of having said things he probably said. They suggested he was hiding something sleazy by refusing to release his taxes.

Rubio seemed to score points in Houston when he turned around on Trump’s put-down of his poor performance in a previous debate in which Rubio was criticized for on-message repetitions.

“Now he’s repeating himself,” Rubio said of Trump with a grin. Trump scowled and denied it. “You repeat yourself every day,” Rubio said. Trump said Rubio did so “five times” in the last debate. Rubio shot back: “We just saw you repeat yourself five times five seconds ago.”

In a similar vein, Cruz said at one point: “Falsely accusing someone of lying is itself a lie, and something that Donald does daily.” Cruz called it a “pattern” that Trump makes deals that he later breaks.

There was also this eloquent Cruz-Trump exchange: “Donald, relax.”

“I’m relaxed. You’re the basket case.”

Trump: “Don’t get nervous.”

Cruz: “I promise you nothing about you makes anybody nervous.”

For all this dissing, you still had the feel that Trump had not really been hit between the eyes, that his fans weren’t about to think twice, that he remained front-runner. Even the body language on stage seemed to suggest it, with Trump in the center, broader and taller than those next to him, preening and shrugging, looking away as he spoke to each. Schoolyard stuff.

His answers to moderators’ questions hold increased meaning now, with more people taking them seriously. After all, Trump is only a few key primaries away from acquiring unbeatable momentum toward the GOP nomination. The other candidates’ focus on attacking him seems to have arrived late in the game, with Super Tuesday primaries next week.

But Trump, while continuing to resist the politically correct, also wasn’t showing any sudden dedication to the factually correct.

He continued to claim illegal immigration “wouldn’t be a big subject” in the campaign if not for him. Of course, it has been an almost continuous point of debate for many years before his candidacy.

When asked about a Telemundo survey that showed three quarters of Hispanic voters had a negative opinion of him, he said, “I don’t believe anything Telemundo says” and “I’m doing very well with Hispanics” and “I love them.”

When told of an analysis that showed his tax-cut proposal would cost $10 trillion even counting stimulations in business, and asked how he would balance the budget, he mentioned agency eliminations that would amount to only a fraction of the projected cost and said: “The country will become a dynamic economy.”

And he insisted despite all evidence to the contrary that Mexico would pay for his desired border wall.

By the end of the show, you got the sense that the status quo in the race wouldn’t even change if he replaced the wall proposal with a plan for condos along the border.

But as Trump’s success so far has proved, you never know.

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