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In Another Chaotic Debate, Cruz Appeals to Anti-Trump Voters

Ted Cruz has long yearned for a two-man race with Donald Trump, and on Thursday night, the Texas senator gave his most vocal audition yet.

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz at the GOP presidential debate in Detroit, Michigan on March 3, 2016.

Editor's note: This story has been updated with additional commentary from during and after the debate.

DETROIT — Ted Cruz has long yearned for a two-man race with Donald Trump, and on Thursday night, the Texas senator gave his most vocal audition yet.

In the 11th Republican presidential debate, Cruz appealed again and again to the bloc of voters not supporting Trump, pleading with them to consolidate behind him as the billionaire barrels toward the GOP nomination.

"We welcome you to our team because we've demonstrated not once, not twice, not three times, but five separate times we have beat Donald," Cruz said, decrying Trump as a weak general election candidate without an ideological core. "And if you don't want him to be the nominee, then I ask you to stand with us as a broad coalition."

"We cannot mess this up," Cruz later added.

As he has done since the beginning of Trump's insurgent campaign, Cruz said he understands the voter frustration fueling the billionaire's rise. But on Thursday night, Cruz delivered a much more forceful message to voters inclined to back Trump.

"You're angry at Washington, and he uses angry rhetoric," Cruz said. "But for 40 years, Donald has been part of the corruption in Washington that you're angry about."

The debate here at the Fox Theatre saw Cruz exclusively focusing on Trump after a number of debates in which he clashed with both the billionaire and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida. There were nonetheless plenty of fireworks Thursday night, leading Cruz to ask at one point how the debate would look in a general election. Cruz's campaign later proclaimed him the "adult in the room."

As for Cruz effectively ignoring Rubio, Cruz's campaign offered a simple explanation. "We see this as a two-person race between Donald Trump and Ted Cruz," Cruz spokesman Ron Nehring told reporters.

Not only did Cruz and Rubio refrain from criticizing one another, they also teamed up at times, most vocally pressing Trump to authorize the release of a tape that reportedly shows some flexibility in his immigration views. The tape stems from an off-the-record conversation the billionaire had with the editorial board of the New York Times.

Trump held firm against Cruz and Rubio, saying he has "too much respect" for the off-the-record agreement to ask that the recording be made public. When Cruz specifically pressed Trump later in the debate, the billionaire retorted: "I've given my answer, lyin' Ted. I've given my answer, lyin' Ted."

Trump's purported flexibility on immigration was just one of many issues on which both candidates and moderators accused him of reversing his position, including an assault weapons ban he said he supported in his 2000 book but on Thursday claimed to now be against. Cruz took note of the abundance of flip-flops, saying Trump "literally has been on every side of every issue and, in the course of this debate, may be on two other sides before we’re done."

Keeping up his singular focus on Trump, Cruz repeatedly pressed his argument that the billionaire does not have the temperament to be president, especially after the Trump talked up his willingness to use torture in the fight against terrorism.

"I think the American people understand that yelling and cursing at people doesn’t make you a tough guy," Cruz said.

As Trump bragged about calling NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden a traitor from the get-go, Cruz said the country needs a "president that isn't rash, that doesn't pop off at the hip." Cruz explained his own reluctance to label Snowden a traitor but insisted that he had always said Snowden should be prosecuted if he violated the law.

Some of the night's most contentious moments were between Rubio and Trump, though Cruz had his fair share.

"Donald, learn not to interrupt," Cruz chided Trump during one exchange. "It's not complicated. Count to 10, Donald. Count to 10."

Later in the debate, Cruz repeatedly told Trump to "breathe" as they talked over one another, prompting Rubio to joke that yoga was happening on stage. After Cruz confirmed yoga was not occuring, Rubio quipped of Trump, "He's very flexible, so you never know."

Despite all the animosity toward Trump, his rivals on the stage — including Cruz — ended the debate by reiterating their promises to support whomever the GOP nominee is.

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Politics 2016 elections Ted Cruz