March 4, 2016 9:49 AM EST

In the space of 24 hours, the GOP civil war over Donald Trump when from cold to hot. The party’s past two GOP nominees rejected their party’s front-runner, calling him dangerous and unqualified. His three leading rivals and a leading news outlet revealed the holes and inconsistencies in his positions on stage. The would-be GOP standard-bearer delivered rambling defenses and referenced his manhood before a national audience. And maybe none of it mattered.

The surreal 2016 campaign got event more bizarre Thursday, as Trump’s ability to say and do just about anything without consequence was tested like never before. Trump’s unfamiliarity with a host of policy issues was on stark display, as he could not account for wild exaggerations about how he’d balance the budget or rapidly shifting positions on core foreign policy questions. He flip-flopped on stage about his support of H-1B visas, and then flopped back to opposition an hour after in a statement from his campaign. But because of the late stage, his rivals are left with little time or resources to halt his momentum.

Marco Rubio continued his personal assault on Trump, but appeared deflated as his own pathway to securing the nomination without a contested convention disappears. He appeared flummoxed by how Trump continues to get away with everything he does, blaming the media for enabling the front-runner in the name of ratings only to watch it happen over and over again. His campaign believes the personal attacks are a tactic to keep him in the news, but increasingly he’s being dirtied by the mud he’s slinging.

Ted Cruz sought to challenge Trump while avoiding the personal, highlighting Trump’s financial support for Democrats and contrasting himself with the fireworks coming from the Rubio-Trump exchanges. It may have been his strongest debate at a pivotal time, with his haters in the Republican establishment considering getting over it in the name of stopping Trump.

John Kasich continues to play by his own rules, refusing to take the bait to engage his fellow candidates time and again. Being the adult in the room certainly helps him stand out, but he’s selling what only a fraction of the GOP is buying. He will no doubt see a bump off the debate, but it’s unlikely it will be enough to build a national movement at the last minute.

Here are your must-reads:

Must Reads

Republicans Debate Amid Party Split
A raucous day on the campaign trail [TIME]

Why Trump Won’t Change
Debate highlight’s the GOP’s descent into the Twilight Zone [TIME]

President Trump’s Illegal Military Orders
A commander-in-chief doesn’t have free rein over the nation’s troops, TIME’s Mark Thompson explains

Romney Calls on Republican Voters to Stop Trump
In an unprecedented move, the former nominee calls on the party to unite against its front-runner [TIME]

The Best-Laid Free Media Plan of Marco Rubio
His campaign used data to try to put the candidate in front of the right voters. He realized too late that he couldn’t get there without hurling insults [Bloomberg]

Sound Off

“I have a strong core. I have a strong core. But I’ve never seen a successful person who wasn’t flexible” — Donald Trump explaining some of his shifting positions

Cruz: “Breathe, breathe, breathe, you can do it.”
Rubio: “When they’re done with the yoga, can I answer a question?”
Cruz: “I really hope that we don’t see yoga on this stage.”
Rubio [gesturing to Trump]: “Well he’s very flexible, so you never know.”

Bits and Bites

Donald Trump Defends Torture at Republican Debate [TIME]

Obama Plans to Stay in Washington After His Presidency Ends [TIME]

Vote to Override South Dakota ‘Bathroom Bill’ Veto Narrowly Fails [TIME]

Christie Says He ‘Wasn’t Held Hostage’ at Trump Press Conference [TIME]

Republican Turmoil Has Historians Straining for Parallels [New York Times]

Donald Trump Plans Fundraising Blitz If He Wins GOP Nomination [CNN]

What Ever Happened to All That Money Trump Raised for the Veterans? [Washington Post]

Contact us at letters@time.com.

Read More From TIME

Related Stories

EDIT POST