Needing desperately to take down Donald Trump, a flame-throwing Marco Rubio and an intense, unyielding Ted Cruz blasted away at the Republican front-runner in their final debate before 11 states cast crucial votes on Super Tuesday.
Trump fought back with his trademark insults, but the two senators were armed with data and often unpleasant anecdotes from Trump’s past. Rubio, a senator from Florida, cited Trump’s hiring practices and questioned how he would overhaul healthcare. Cruz, a senator from Texas, questioned what is in the income tax records that Trump refuses to release.
Trump would not be rattled. Accused of hiring immigrants here illegally, he responded icily that he was the only one on the stage who had ever hired anybody. His dealings with Democrats show his ability to get along with people. Rubio, he said, is a liar.
Cruz and Rubio were armed and ready to challenge the man who leads in eight of the 11 states that hold primaries next Tuesday. Rubio questioned a three-decade old controversy surrounding a Trump-backed joint venture whose contractor paid Polish workers less than minimum wage.
“I’ve hired tens of thousands of people over at my job. You’ve hired nobody,” Trump charged. “Yes, you’ve hired a thousand from another country,” Rubio shot back.
Cruz cited Trump’s campaign donations, including some to a bipartisan group of senators, which included Rubio, that proposed a 2013 overhaul of immigration laws including a path to citizenship.
Trump kept slamming back, at one point belittling moderator Hugh Hewitt and saying his radio show had few listeners. Cruz and Rubio wouldn’t be silenced. At times the shouting was so out of control it was hard to figure out what anyone was saying. Rubio and Cruz were tougher. Trump was Trump, and so far, it’s worked.
In response to a question, Trump said he would not release his personal income tax records until after what he called a routine audit is finished.
“Well, I would think that underscores the need to release those returns,” Cruz said of the audit.
Mitt Romney ignited a firestorm Wednesday when he said Trump’s returns would include a “bombshell.” He offered no proof and Trump responded by calling the 2012 Republican presidential nominee a “dope.”
Cruz and Rubio both promised to release tax returns later this week.
Trump, Cruz and Rubio spent more than a half hour trumpeting their plans to deal with millions of illegal immigrants and accusing one another of being weak on the issue.
“You’re the only person on this stage that has ever been fined for hiring to work on your projects illegally,” Rubio said.
“No, no, no,” Trump responded.
He turned his ire on Mexico, responding to comments from a former Mexican president that his country would not pay for the wall that Trump has promised. “Mexico is going to pay for it,” Trump said, adding that the vulgar defiance meant the wall would now be “10 feet higher.”
Rubio seized on the wall to slam Trump with one of the debate’s memorable lines. “If he builds the wall the way he built Trump Tower, he’ll be using illegal immigrants to build it,” Rubio said.
Trump derided the comment as a “cute sound bite,” much as he’s done in nine previous debates when now-former candidates had taken him on. But Rubio was unfazed, and at one point said viewers should see for themselves:
“Google it,” he said. “’Donald Trump Polish Workers.’”
Emblematic of the reversed roles in the debate, Rubio poked fun at himself as he pressed Trump for greater details on his healthcare plan. Trump described a proposal to allow health insurance companies to cross state lines and increase competition, and promised it would be “a beautiful thing.”
“Now he’s repeating himself,” Rubio said with a grin, borrowing the line that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie had used to skewer him during a debate before the New Hampshire primary earlier this month.
Cruz also chided Trump, saying that while the Texas senator was fighting an immigration plan by a group of senators known as the gang of eight, Trump was “firing Dennis Rodman on Celebrity Apprentice.”
Cruz was adamant about who he wants to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia. “I give you my word every justice I nominate will vigorously defend the Bill of Rights for my children and yours.”
Trump insisted he would defend religious liberty, and then quickly noted that Cruz had supported Chief Justice John Roberts when he was nominated in 2005. Roberts helped uphold Obamacare, Trump said, and it “might as well be called Robertscare.” Cruz “feels badly about it,” Trump said.
Cruz said he would have nominated someone more conservative, but noted that Trump has routinely given money to Democrats who backed liberal justices. And, said Cruz, Trump would cut deals to get justices approved.
Trump fired back. Cruz stands on the Senate floor and engages in “talk and talk and talk.” Nothing gets done. “We have to have somebody who has to make deals,” he said.
What is your plan, Rubio demanded of Trump.
Allow companies to sell different products across state lines, Trump said. “When you get rid of the lines it brings in competition. … It’ll be a beautiful thing,” he said.
Rubio scoffed. “Now he’s repeating himself,” he said. Earlier this month, Rubio was lambasted for doing just that. Now he was confronting Trump and wouldn’t let up.
The crowd cheered almost uncontrollably. Trump tried to hit back, recalling how Rubio had a “meltdown on a stage like I’ve never seen anybody.”
That was then. This was a new Rubio. “He says five things,” the senator charged, his face taut with anger. “Everyone’s dumb. He’s going to make American great again.”
Trump wouldn’t relent. “There’s nothing to add,” he said of his healthcare ideas. “What is to add?”
Later, Cruz used his closing statement at the GOP debate to remind voters ahead of next week’s Super Tuesday contests of his vow to investigate Planned Parenthood and bring to an end “persecution of religious liberties.”
He also promises to “rip to shreds” the nuclear deal with Iran and move the American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.
Here were some of the main zingers from the brawl in the Bayou City:
“You haven’t hired one person, you liar,” Trump to Rubio.
“ Look it up. ‘Trump Polish workers,’ you’ll see a million dollars for hiring illegal workers on one of his projects,” Rubio to Trump.
“You don’t have the endorsement of one Republican senator. You should be ashamed of yourself,” Trump to Cruz.
“Anyone who cared about illegal immigrants wouldn’t be hiring illegal immigrants,” Cruz to Trump.
This report includes material from Bloomberg News and The Associated Press.