Rubio Assails Trump, But Was It Too Late?

Rubio Assails Trump, But Was It Too Late?
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HOUSTON—Donald Trump has been the Republican presidential front-runner for months. But with just five days to go until Super Tuesday, when nearly a dozen states could essentially pave his path to the nomination, he finally got a first taste of what it’s like to be the leader of the pack.

Marco Rubio, aiming to be the consensus alternative to Trump but still far behind in the delegate count, led a full-throttle charge against him Thursday night. The Florida senator came to the GOP primary debate at the University of Houston armed with an opposition research packet—pressing the billionaire businessman on his hiring of undocumented immigrants, fraud charges related to “Trump University,” and his lack of specifics on a health care plan and foreign policy regarding Israel. And he wasted no time in launching those attacks.

For Republicans who oppose Trump, the exchanges that left him annoyed and a bit rattled at times were like a dream come true, if long overdue. Even Rick Perry, who is supporting Texas colleague Ted Cruz, lauded Rubio for hitting Trump for repeating himself in his answers. “That was a pretty powerful moment,” he told reporters afterward.

Perry was among the first candidates to attack Trump, and among the first to fall in his wake. Trump’s road to this point in the campaign is littered with the carcasses of also-rans, governors and fellow outsiders who were swept aside by his hurricane of a campaign. This includes Jeb Bush, whose father and mother were in the audience Thursday night.

Rubio had been reluctant to take Trump on. But with his own candidacy in jeopardy and amid questions about whether he is capable of winning any of the states up for grabs next week, he switched gears in Houston, hoping to show he could out-punch Trump one on one. The move might have been made out of desperation, as Rubio has yet to win a primary or caucus state and the road ahead remains rocky.

Rubio’s camp insists the shift came at the right moment, with a narrowed field and delegate-rich primaries on the horizon, and that the attacks on Trump will continue.

“When you have 16 or 17 candidates in a race, you’re playing seven-dimensional chess, and if you take on one candidate aggressively, you don’t necessarily accrue the benefit of that,” senior strategist Todd Harris told reporters in the post-debate spin room. “We felt like this was the exact right time to show the Republican base that Marco Rubio is the one candidate best able to take on and take out Donald Trump.”

But with early voting already underway in some “SEC primary” states and Trump maintaining a significant lead in many of those March 1 contests and others beyond, the night was unlikely to move the needle much. The question of whether the hits came too late remains.

By the debate’s end, Trump was already brushing off the attacks and spinning his performance, confident that his loyal base of support had not been dinged. He also currently leads Rubio in the freshman senator’s home state of Florida. Trump has a demonstrated ability of dramatically changing the subject in his favor when he is attacked, and the next several days could unveil new story lines that render the debate a distant memory. What’s more, Rubio is likely to become Trump’s top target.

Still, Rubio’s performance was effective in that it seemed to knock Trump off his game, even if momentarily. And he was helped in ways by his arch-rival, Ted Cruz, whose path to the nomination hinges on beating Trump in some of the March 1 primaries, including his home state of Texas. Cruz aggressively pressed Trump on his refusal to release his tax returns because he is being audited, spotlighted his ties to Democrats, and raised questions about his judgment when it comes to appointing justices to the Supreme Court.

“This guy is a choke artist, and this guy is a liar,” Trump said of Rubio and Cruz, respectively, as he was wedged between them on stage.

Rubio started the attacks by referring to a New York Times report that Trump favored hiring foreign workers at his Palm Beach, Fla., resort.

“You're the only person on this stage that has ever been fined for hiring people to work on your projects illegally,” Rubio said.

Trump responded quickly and pointedly: “I'm the only one on the stage that's hired people. You haven't hired anybody.”

But Rubio didn’t relent. “Yes, you've hired a thousand from another country.” Trump said again, “You haven't hired one person, you liar.”

The Florida lawmaker pressed on: “People can look it up. I'm sure people are Googling it right now. Look it up. ‘Trump Polish workers.’ You'll see a million dollars for hiring illegal workers on one of his projects. He did it.”

Cruz also joined in on the fight over immigration. “I really find it amazing that Donald believes that he is the one who discovered the issue of illegal immigration. I can tell you, when I ran for Senate here in the state of Texas, I ran promising to lead the fight against amnesty, promising to fight to build a wall,” he said. “And in 2013, when I was fighting against the ‘Gang of Eight’ amnesty bill, where was Donald? He was firing Dennis Rodman on ‘Celebrity Apprentice.’”

Cruz argued Trump’s record on immigration was worse than Rubio’s, because Trump “funded” the Gang of Eight immigration reform bill.

“You don't have the endorsement of one Republican senator and you work with these people. You should be ashamed of yourself,” Trump shot back.

Later, when the real estate mogul was pressed over how he’d get Mexico to pay for the wall he has pledged to build on the southern U.S. border, and whether he would start a trade war over it, Rubio found another opening to needle.

“If he builds the wall the way he built Trump Towers, he'll be using illegal immigrant labor to do it,” he said.

“Such a cute sound bite,” Trump responded.

Rubio then questioned Trump’s openness to a trade war with Mexico. “So you're gonna be starting a trade war against your own ties and your own suits? Why don't you make them in America?”

“You wouldn't know anything about it because you're a lousy businessman,” Trump retorted.

“I don't know anything about bankrupting four companies,” Rubio fired back.

The young senator, whom Trump has often accused of being “sweaty” beneath the bright lights of the debate stage, seemed to enjoy challenging Trump. At one point, Rubio even self-mockingly employed an attack used against himself earlier this month. When pressing Trump to lay out a health care plan, and Trump continued to talk in broad terms, Rubio charged that “now he's repeating himself.”

“I watched him repeat himself five times four weeks ago,” Trump responded, referring to Rubio’s damaging debate performance prior to the New Hampshire primary, which led to a fifth-place finish there. “I just watched you repeat yourself five times five seconds ago,” Rubio responded.

“I watched him melt down on the stage like that. I've never seen it in anybody. I thought he came out of the swimming pool,” Trump answered.

“I see him repeat himself every night, he says five things, everyone's dumb, he's gonna make America great again,” Rubio shot back.

At times, Rubio’s and Cruz’s hits on Trump were so in sync that it was as if they planned them ahead of time.

The two senators remain heated rivals, however, as each believes the other in standing in the way of a one-on-one contest with Trump. But such a contest still appears far off.

If successful in Texas and other Southern states on Tuesday, Cruz will press on triumphantly. Rubio is aiming to pick up delegates that will be proportionally awarded on Tuesday while banking on Florida’s winner-take-all primary on March 15, which his campaign insists he will win despite Trump’s commanding lead in the polls there. Meanwhile, Ohio Gov. John Kasich vows he will stay on through his state’s primary, also on the 15th. And Ben Carson, who received a meager share of the questions Thursday night, refuses to leave the race. Thus the GOP battle looks to remain long and tenuous, which would likely enhance Trump’s chances of securing the nomination.

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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