The Big Conversation

Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz both trained their fire on GOP presidential front-runner Donald Trump at Thursday’s CNN debate in Houston in an attempt to halt the billionaire’s momentum going into next week’s party primary contests.

The result was a contentious encounter with multiple attacks on Trump that he parried with example after example of name-calling.

The Tribune’s Patrick Svitek writes:

From the first few minutes of the debate, Rubio made clear he would no longer duck Trump, going after the real estate developer over reports that he hired foreign workers to build some of his properties. The Florida senator later confronted Trump over repeating himself, one of several moments that led to loud chaos in the debate hall here at the University of Houston. 

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By the end of the debate, Cruz had caught up to Rubio in the crossfire with Trump, racking up a number of contentious exchanges with the billionaire that included some of his most personal insults yet. "You get along with nobody," Trump told Cruz, adding the Texas senator "should be ashamed of himself."

The candidates clashed on health care and immigration with Cruz also taking Trump to task for not releasing his tax returns.

The vehemence of the encounter points to the increasing significance for Cruz of the contests on Tuesday, which includes the party primaries in Texas, Cruz’s home state.

“Long a day on which his campaign hoped to make major progress toward securing the GOP presidential nomination, March 1 is instead shaping up to be something much different: a potential do-or-die moment,” Svitek writes. “After three straight third-place finishes in other states, Cruz now looks toward Super Tuesday to rescue his argument that he, not U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, is the best candidate to go head to head with billionaire Donald Trump.”

Trib Must Reads

Open Legislative Races Draw More than 70 Candidates, by Madlin Mekelburg — A slew of open seats in the Legislature means there will be at least 18 freshman lawmakers in the Capitol come January. Two thirds of the open seats are currently held by a Republican.

UT/TT Poll: Foreign Terrorists Top List of Texans' Fears, by Ross Ramsey — Foreign terrorist groups and illegal immigration are the greatest threats to the United States, according to voters surveyed for the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll.

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El Paso DA Race Highlights 1993 Double Murder Case, by Johnathan Silver — The freedom of an El Paso man accused of two 1993 murders could hinge on the outcome of the Democratic primary in the race for El Paso County district attorney.

Former Texas GOP Chair: Many Predictions About Trump Don't Add Up, by Alana Rocha and Justin Dehn — With just a fraction of the delegates awarded so far, the race for the GOP presidential nomination is still up for grabs, former Republican Party of Texas Chairman Steve Munisteri said Thursday.

UT Architecture Dean Cites Campus Carry as a Reason for Departure, by Matthew Watkins — The University of Texas at Austin's longtime architecture dean announced he was leaving on Thursday, saying the state's new campus carry law played a major role in pushing him out.

Abbott on Long-Awaited Cruz Endorsement: It Was "The Right Time”, by Patrick Svitek — Gov. Greg Abbott on Thursday said he waited until the week before the Texas primary to endorse Ted Cruz because he wanted to maximize his impact on the volatile presidential race. 

The Day Ahead

•    If you haven’t voted yet, today is the final day of early voting ahead of Tuesday’s primaries. Casting his vote today at 10:30 a.m. is Gov. Greg Abbott. The governor will vote at the Howson Branch Library in Austin.

•    After last night’s Republican presidential debate in Houston, Donald Trump heads to Fort Worth to hold a rally at 12 p.m.

•    On Saturday morning, GOP presidential hopeful Ben Carson is scheduled to appear as an invited guest at a presidential town hall hosted by the NE Tarrant Tea Party in Irving.

Elsewhere

The new South: How Republican Texas is changing its deep red hue, The Guardian

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Texas Districts Pass Restriction on Trans Student Athletes, Texas Observer 

Texas audience hoots and hollers as candidates scrap, The Dallas Morning News

Attorney: Judge Boyd didn’t talk to British tabloid about Couch case, Fort Worth Star-Telegram

Rubio to appear in Midland, Midland Reporter-Telegram 

Will Rick Perry jump back in the GOP race?, Austin American-Statesman

Wendy Davis selling running shoes, high heels, lingerie, Fort Worth Star-Telegram

Group sues Greg Abbott over removal of Capitol holiday display, Austin American-Statesman

Plenty of shouting outside the debate, too, Houston Chronicle

Abortion providers reveal their Supreme Court strategy ahead of arguments, Houston Chronicle

Quote to Note

"I’m not going to pay for that f---ing wall."

— Former President of Mexico Vicente Fox, slamming GOP frontrunner Donald Trump during an interview with Univision anchor Jorge Ramos

Today in TribTalk

Why I'm for Ted Cruz, by Matt Krause — During these perilous times, we need a leader who is courageous, consistent, passionate and principled. That leader is Ted Cruz.

Ban on direct auto sales hurts consumers and innovation in Texas, by Georgeta Dragoiu — Texas, like many other states, makes it illegal to purchase vehicles directly from manufacturer-owned stores. This not only stifles American dynamism but also denies Americans the right to decide what car to buy and how to buy it. 

Trib Events for the Calendar

•    Live Post-Primary TribCast on March 2 at the Austin Club

•    Protecting Houston Before the Next Big Storm on March 3 at San Jacinto College Maritime Technology and Training Center in La Porte.

•    A Conversation with Sid Miller, Texas Agriculture Commissioner on March 10 at the Austin Club

•    How High is the Water? A Data Visualization Party on March 13 at Umbel Corp

•    A Conversation with Reps. Craig Goldman, Stephanie Klick and Ramon Romero Jr. on March 29 at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth.

•    A Conversation with Sen. Carlos Uresti and Rep. Poncho Nevárez on April 13 at Sul Ross State University in Alpine

•    A Symposium on the Texas Economy on April 29 at the University of Houston