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Rubio finally attacked Trump at the debate — because he had no other choice

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Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

This week, mainstream Republicans have utterly despaired over Marco Rubio's seeming reluctance to attack Donald Trump, as the billionaire was looking more likely to run away with the nomination every day.

Rubio put a stop to that during Thursday's debate in Houston.

Over the course of two hours, he used all the ammunition he could muster against Trump. He attacked Trump's credentials on immigration and Israel, questioned his business history, brought up the shady "Trump University" venture, and even got in a good dig when the mogul kept repeating himself. His spirited performance is already winning plaudits from pundits:

But that chorus of praise is giving me a bit of déjà vu. After all, it wasn't so long ago that his fellow candidate from Florida, Jeb Bush, tried the same thing.

Bush was far behind in the polls and faced uncertain prospects of winning a state anytime soon. So he abandoned his previous strategy of ignoring Trump, and tried taking him on directly instead, especially in debates. He, too, looked spirited and won media plaudits for his performance.

But it was a strategy borne of desperation, after Bush's previous plan had completely failed. His chances to win even one state were looking poor, and his donors and supporters were getting increasingly antsy, urging him to try something, anything different. So Bush did try it. Of course, it didn't work.

Rubio's in a better position now than Bush had been then. But not by all that much. He still hasn't yet managed to win a state, and it's not clear if he'll manage to win any of the 11 up for grabs on Super Tuesday. Worse yet, two new polls were released Thursday showing Rubio trailing Trump in the senator's own home state of Florida. These, justifiably, sent many Rubio supporters and sympathizers into panic.

So Rubio had to change things up. Focusing mainly on Cruz in the debate, as Politico initially reported he would do, wasn't an option any more. He had to at least try going after Trump, otherwise it looked like the billionaire would just, well, win.

He did try it, and it seemed to go well enough. Trump hit back, of course, but Rubio parried and seemed to be more adept than Ted Cruz at actually landing blows on Trump. He certainly avoided any disaster like his pre-New Hampshire performance.

Yet again and again, Trump's rivals have seemed to damage him during debates, and his polling lead has remained stubbornly steady. This was fine back in the summer and fall, when there seemed to be tons of time remaining. But the time to stop Trump is rapidly dwindling. So many delegates are up for grabs in the first half of March that the billionaire could get an effectively insurmountable lead in just 19 days.

So, Rubio indeed had a good night on Thursday. But we don't yet know whether it will be remembered as the day he turned the race around — or as a final, Jeb Bush-like, desperate play he made before his looming defeat.