HOUSTON (AP) — Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz barreled into Thursday’s Republican debate eager to seize one last chance to slow Donald Trump’s before next week’s Super Tuesday mega-round of voting, and immediately took him on over his immigration positions and more. In the night’s first exchange, Florida Sen. Rubio accused Trump of shifting positions on deportation, hiring people from other countries to take jobs from Americans and being fined for worker violations. Joining in, Cruz criticized Trump for suggesting he alone had “discovered the issue of illegal immigration.”
Trump shot back at Rubio: “I hired tens of thousands of people. You’ve hired nobody.” As for Cruz, Trump took a more personal tack, touting his own ability to get along with others and adding: “You get along with nobody. … You should be ashamed of yourself.” Both Rubio and Cruz said that Trump had had to pay a $1 million fine for illegal immigration hiring.
In the past, the two had shown little willingness to take on the former reality television star when the national spotlight shines brightest. That changed in the ninth GOP debate of the presidential campaign. Thursday’s debate took place just a few days before 11 states hold GOP elections that could either cement Trump’s dominance, or let his rivals slow his march to his party’s nomination. To date, Trump has proved largely immune to traditional political attacks, something he revels in.
“I seem to have a very good track record when they do go after me,” he said in advance of the debate.
One of the early casualties of the GOP presidential race, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, showed no reluctance Thursday to assail Trump head-on, calling him “a nut job” who’s likely to win the GOP nomination but lose the general election. Graham singled out Trump’s assertion that illegal immigration from Mexico brings rapists and drug dealers into the U.S. The debate’s location in Houston gave a nod to the primacy of Texas in next week’s Super Tuesday round of voting. There are 595 delegates at stake Tuesday in 11 states, including 155 in Texas.
The debate audience included former President George H.W. Bush, 91, and his wife, Barbara — who missed out on the chance to see their son Jeb take part. He dropped out of the race after a poor showing in the first three states to vote. Thursday’s debate, with CNN and Telemundo as partners, is the only one of the season steered to a Spanish-speaking as well as English-speaking audience, so immigration could be a closely watched issue.
Vice President Joe Biden said during a visit in Mexico on Thursday that some of the campaign rhetoric about Mexico has been “dangerous, damaging and incredibly ill-advised.” Biden said the GOP candidates “do not represent the view of the vast majority of the American people.” The presidential campaign is now shifting to a broader new phase, making a strong debate performance even more important.
“Now these campaigns are in the position of having to use debates to try and shape or change voter perceptions across more than a dozen states in the space of 18 or 19 days,” said Republican strategist Kevin Madden. “That’s a daunting task.”
Trump won Nevada’s presidential caucuses on Tuesday with more than 45 percent of the vote, scoring his third consecutive primary victory in dominant fashion. Rubio edged Cruz for runner-up for the second straight time, with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush — now out of the race — Ohio Gov. John Kasich and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson far off the pace. Seeking to become the Trump alternative, Cruz and Rubio have significant liabilities of their own.
Cruz came into the debate at the weakest point of his campaign after a staff shake-up and three consecutive third-place finishes. Rubio, meanwhile, is barely past a prime-time flop. The Florida senator repeated himself several times in a New Hampshire debate less than three weeks ago, triggering what he now calls “the New Hampshire disappointment.”
He avoided a similar mistake in the subsequent debate, but he’s under the microscope for anything that suggests the 44-year-old legislator isn’t sufficiently prepared to move into the White House. Rubio has been reluctant to talk about Trump by name but stepped up his aggressiveness Wednesday, criticizing Trump for what he called a failure to strongly oppose President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul. He also faulted Trump for saying “he’s not going to take sides on Israel versus the Palestinians because he wants to be an honest broker.”
Rubio said there was no such thing, “because the Palestinian Authority, which has strong links to terror, they teach little kids, 5-year-olds, that it’s a glorious thing to kill Jews.” Since the departure of Bush from the race, Rubio has won a number of endorsements from Republican leaders. The latest came Thursday from Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam.