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Analysis: GOP Contenders Now Trying to Out-Trump Trump

Image: GOP Presidential Candidates Debate In Charleston

Republican presidential candidates (L-R) Ohio Governor John Kasich, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), Donald Trump, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), Ben Carson and Jeb Bush participate in the Fox Business Network Republican presidential debate at the North Charleston Coliseum and Performing Arts Center on January 14, 2016 in North Charleston, South Carolina. Scott Olson / Getty Images

Judging from Thursday night's Republican debate, there was no doubt that Donald Trump's controversial candidacy has set the tone for his contenders' campaigns, who seemed to be trying to out-Trump Trump.

"They were hitting hard on Obama, Clinton, ISIS; pushing the fear factor that they had run with as a theme so far," said Stella Rouse, an Associate Professor in the Department of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland. "The Republicans have pretty much doubled-down on all their points and rhetoric, It's not just Trump, it's all of them," said Rouse, author of Latinos In the Legislative Process: Interests and Influence.

Marco Rubio says Ted Cruz is only consistent on 'political calculation' 1:15

Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz continued to spar over which one of them was more weak on immigration, both accusing the other of supporting "amnesty" for undocumented immigrants. Ted Cruz' campaign tweeted out a Vine video on Twitter during the debate that shows Rubio saying he supported an "earned path to citizenship". In turn, Pro-Rubio supporters have been posting a YouTube video of Ted Cruz supporting a "legal status" for undocumented immigrants to "get out of the shadows".

Marco Rubio's role in the "Gang of Eight" - a Senate bipartisan group that put forth a bill for comprehensive immigration reform - continues to form an ominous cloud over his candidacy with conservatives. His response last night was to double down on conservative talking points - he said Obama would confiscate everyone's guns if he could, prompting Fox anchor Neil Cavuto to ask him where was the proof of that.

"I am convinced that this president," said Rubio, "if he could get rid of the Second Amendment, he would".

Rubio said Hillary Clinton is "disqualified from being commander-in-chief" for her handling of intelligence information. Rubio also suggested that he would not have voted for Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, a Latina of Puerto Rican heritage who grew up in New York. He accused Chris Christie of supporting her nomination to the Supreme Court.

Republican political consultant Luis Alvarado is a Rubio supporter, though he has not made an official endorsement, gave him credit for standing out amid Cruz and Trump's escalating war of words.

"Donald Trump reinforced the fact that he is radioactive at best. It was the Trump versus Cruz and Rubio versus the rest of the field show," said Alvarado.

Yet there is no doubt that the persistence of Trump and Cruz in the polls has pushed the GOP to the right, and the latest NBC/WSJ poll shows that Donald Trump has doubled his lead over Ted Cruz over the last month.

Perhaps the most striking result from the poll, wrote NBC's Mark Murray, was the growing acceptance of Donald Trump within the GOP. If the polls are correct, one can say that Donald Trump has shown the strong message on immigration, the border, trade policy, and security is not too outlandish for Republican voters.

The Trump Way?

One of the more striking features of Donald Trump's strategy is that Trump names names. On trade policy, he has been very specific about where voters' attention should be, lashing out at China. On security, he has made "Muslim extremists" the central component of his message. Yesterday he refused to take back his comments that Muslims not be allowed into the U.S. On immigration, his repeated statements that Mexico is sending its "criminals, drug dealers, and rapists", give Republican voters a clear and succinct image of where the problems with the country lie.

Trump's success is that these images are largely reaffirming for Republican voters. An NBC/WSJ poll late last year found that Republicans are significantly more pessimistic about the direction of the country when asked about the higher number of immigrants in the country, less religion in public life and more acceptiance of gay and lesbian rights. When respondents were asked how this made them feel, 7 in 10 Republicans agreed that it made them feel "uneasy and out of place in their own country".

Despite this undercurrent of pessimism and the GOP's increasingly conservative rhetoric, some Latino Republicans think that ultimately a positive message will help the GOP win the election.

Luis Fortuño, a Republican who served as Governor of Puerto Rico, said, "Regardless of who our nominee is, the RNC has been strengthening its ground game in all major battle ground states like never before. The depth of our optimistic, common-sensical message ought to be our main tool to prevail."

The question now is can any of these candidates turn these strong conservative stances around in a general election with Latino voters. Sylvia Manzano, a principal at Latino Decisions, says she does not think this is likely to happen. A recent poll by Latino Decisions, a firm that specializes in Latino political behavior, says that hostile talk by the Republican party hurts them with Hispanic voters. And apart from the rhetoric, the candidates have taken a hard-right tilt on many issues.

"Even if a candidate was more friendly in language and demeanor, the Republican stances are still a far distance from where the median Latino voter is," said Manzano. "It took a long time for the GOP to get to this point and it will take a long time for Republicans to repair that relationship."

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