In the Line of Fire

Screen Shot 2016-02-26 at 10.46.13 AMMAGGIE HABERMAN

Friday, February 26, 2016

Good Friday morning. The big question heading into the Republican debate on Thursday, for which The Times provided live analysis, highlights and fact-checks, was whether Donald J. Trump’s rivals would go after him. That question was clearly answered.

Well, that escalated slowly.

In the 10th Republican debate on Thursday, Mr. Trump came under the heaviest, most sustained fire he has received so far in the campaign. In previous debates, he was often barely acknowledged by his rivals. The questions most political observers had afterward on Thursday: What took everyone so long, and is it too late to matter?

For the first portion of the debate, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida and Senator Ted Cruz of Texas mostly turned their swords away from each other and swung them at Mr. Trump. It was like watching opposition research books turn, page by page, as they hit Mr. Trump over the lawsuit he is facing related to Trump University, his hiring of foreign workers on guest visas for a Florida property, his donations to the Clinton Foundation, and his comments about wanting to be “neutral” on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

He offered scant details on policy, but struck back with brutal force against Mr. Rubio and Mr. Cruz, hitting Mr. Rubio for his credit-card debt and calling Mr. Cruz a “basket case,” and interrupting each repeatedly. Gov. John R. Kasich of Ohio maintained his sunny, optimistic case aimed at the Midwestern states voting in March, and Ben Carson mostly complained about his speaking time.

Mr. Trump also offered a new explanation for why he has delayed releasing his tax returns and why he has refused to give a date as to when he will: He’s being audited, he said, and is audited every year, and he can’t release the taxes until they’re done. He did not explain why he was being audited personally for his company, and said in postdebate interviews on CNN that he believes he’s being targeted by the I.R.S. because he’s “a strong Christian.”

All of this is fodder that Democrats will resurrect in a general election. Both Mr. Rubio and Mr. Cruz got under Mr. Trump’s skin at various points, scoring strong lines — pressing frequently on the question of whether Mr. Trump is the business success he claims to be. But Mr. Trump scored some of his own. In a CNN interview after the debate, Mr. Cruz for the first time said that both he and Mr. Rubio would be better nominees than Mr. Trump, a surprising turn.

But it is unclear if this will do anything to stop Mr. Trump’s march toward a large delegate lead.