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 health care. Cruz, a senator from Texas, questioned what is in the income tax records that Trump refuses to release.
Trump refused to 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.
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
Cruz and Rubio were armed and ready to challenge the man who leads in eight of the 11 states that vote 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 “(expletive) 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.
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.”