HOUSTON — Marco Rubio unloaded on Donald Trump at the critical Republican debate on Thursday, attempting to save his floundering candidacy with the most withering assault yet launched on the incendiary billionaire who is running away with the party’s presidential nomination.
Immigration. Obamacare. Israel. Tax returns. The “fake” Trump University. Rubio cheerfully emptied his opposition research books, abandoning the avoid-the-bear strategy that has brought him nothing but failure.
His new-found goal: comprehensive destruction. The Florida senator lambasted, mocked and prodded Trump on everything from his made-in-China branded clothing to the inheritance he received from his wealthy father.
“Here’s a guy who inherited $200 million,” Rubio said, an exaggeration. “If he hadn’t inherited $200 million, you know where Donald Trump would be? He would be selling watches in Manhattan.”
Ted Cruz, a Texas senator, eventually joined in the pile-on. By the midway point of the chaotic proceedings at the University of Houston, something remarkable happened: Trump, renowned admirer of his own voice, complained to CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that he was being asked too many questions.
The debate was by far the most unruly of an unruly race, more than once descending into what a television closed captioner described as “unintelligible yelling.” Trump, as usual, blustered and interrupted his way through several challenges, reverting to poll numbers and insults when he was out of substance.
“This guy’s a choke artist and this guy’s a liar,” he said of Rubio and Cruz respectively.
But he appeared unusually flustered at times. When Rubio pressured him to elaborate on the details of his flimsy health-care plan, the businessman resorted to the same talking points.
“Now he’s repeating himself,” Rubio said with a wide smile, making reference to his own repetition gaffe earlier in February. Trump’s fumbling response: “I don’t repeat myself. I don’t repeat myself.”
At a pivotal moment in the race, it seemed to be Trump’s shakiest debate. The question, as with every apparent Trump stumble, is whether his performance will matter at all.
Trump has won three easy victories in a row, and he holds big leads in most of the 12 states voting on “Super Tuesday” next week. His supporters, fiercely loyal, have proven impervious to previous efforts to persuade them that Trump is unconservative or unelectable.
But none of those efforts has been so forceful. Rubio, the establishment favourite who has not won a single state, had long played nice with Trump. Trailing Trump even in his home state, he had faced intense pressure to attack. He appeared to deliver his strongest performance to date.
“Rubio is killing it,” Glenn Beck, a Cruz endorser, said on Twitter.
Cruz initially appeared reluctant to join Rubio, passing up his first opportunity to say he didn’t trust Trump to appoint Supreme Court justices. But he quickly changed his mind.
“This is a man who, for 40 years, has given money to Jimmy Carter, to Joe Biden, to Hillary Clinton, to Chuck Schumer, to Harry Reid,” Cruz said. “Nobody who supports far-left liberal Democrats who are fighting for judicial activists can possibly care about having principled constitutionalists on the court.”
Rubio and Cruz have spent most of the campaign ignoring Trump and attacking each other. On Thursday they served as a tag team. Both promised to release their tax returns by the end of the week, challenging Trump on his refusal to release his own.
“He can do it tomorrow,” Cruz said. “He doesn’t want to do it, because presumably there’s something in there. . .”
“Nothing,” Trump said.
“ . . . That is bad,” Cruz continued. “If there’s nothing, release them tomorrow. They’re already prepared. The only reason he’s not releasing them is because he’s afraid that he will get hit.”
He then pivoted to the fraud lawsuit Trump faces over his failed Trump University.
“I want you to think about, if this man is the nominee, having the Republican nominee on the stand in court, being cross-examined about whether he committed fraud,” he said. “You don’t think the mainstream media will go crazy on that?”
Rubio signalled his aggressive intentions in his opening statement, when he warned Republicans against turning into “a party that preys on people’s angers and fears.” But that was merely the palate cleanser. In his first substantive answer, he brought up a New York Times story that revealed Trump’s exclusive club in Florida has hired European guest workers over American applicants.
“My mom was a maid at a hotel,” he said, “and instead of hiring an American like her, you have brought in over a thousand people from all over the world to fill those jobs instead.”
Though the debate was effectively a three-way battle, there were two other men on stage. Ohio Gov. John Kasich and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson spoke little and barely registered, except when Carson said he would choose justices based on “the fruit salad of their life.”