Houston — It had only happened once before in this GOP primary season, but Thursday night it happened repeatedly: Donald Trump was bested in a debate confrontation.
“Today, we saw a report in one of the newspapers that, Donald, you’ve hired a significant number of people from other countries to take jobs that Americans could have filled,” Marco Rubio, standing to Trump’s right, said just minutes into the debate, when the topic turned to immigration. “My mom and dad — my mom was a maid at a hotel, and instead of hiring an American like her, you have brought in over 1,000 people from all over the world to fill those jobs instead.”
Ted Cruz, standing on Trump’s other side, took his own shots at Trump shortly thereafter.
“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 said.
Further questioning Trump’s commitment to the immigration issue, which the real-estate mogul claimed “wouldn’t even be a big subject” in the race if he hadn’t made it a centerpiece of his campaign, Cruz noted that Trump had donated money to several of the senators who co-sponsored the Gang of Eight bill.
“If you look at the eight members of the Gang of Eight, Donald gave over $50,000 to three Democrats and two Republicans. And when you’re funding open-border politicians, you shouldn’t be surprised when they fight for open borders,” Cruz said.
Positioned on either side of Trump, Cruz and Rubio spent nearly two hours taking swings at the billionaire.
Thursday’s debate, the final one before Super Tuesday, was crucial for both Rubio and Cruz, who are running out of time to blunt Trump’s momentum toward the nomination. Trump is coming off a massive victory in Nevada on Tuesday, his third win in a row, and polls show him leading in most of the Super Tuesday states. Cruz and Rubio are both vying to become the sole alternative to Trump, but if either is to have any chance of defeating the front-runner, he’ll need the other to drop out. And each senator was eager to prove he is the best man to rally anti-Trump voters.
Positioned on either side of Trump, Cruz and Rubio spent nearly two hours taking swings at the billionaire. Unlike past assaults on Trump, the attacks Thursday revolved around the front-runner’s record, rather than his temperament. Rubio charged that Trump is not the straight-talking candidate he seems, contrasting his campaign-trail rhetoric with his past actions. Cruz focused on undercutting Trump’s credentials as a conservative.
Rubio took the lead, battering Trump with a series of attacks that painted him as an opportunist, a fake, and someone who did not entirely understand what he was saying.
“If he builds the wall the way he built Trump Towers, he’ll be using illegal-immigrant labor to do it,” Rubio said, attacking Trump on his core message of ending illegal immigration and deporting those already here illegally.
The Florida senator also attacked Trump for Trump University, a course that claims to teach its namesake’s secrets to achieving success in real estate. Former students are currently suing Trump, alleging the course — which was rechristened the “Trump Entrepreneur Initiative” after the New York State Department of Education complained that its name was misleading — is a scam. “You lied to the students at Trump University,” Rubio said.
#share#On the subject of Israel, Rubio gave Trump a bit of his own medicine, condescendingly suggesting he was simply too ignorant on the subject to know he was wrong.
“I don’t know if Donald realizes this, I’m sure it’s not his intent, but the position you’ve taken is anti-Israel,” Rubio said of Trump’s proclamation that if he were president, the United States would remain neutral in the Israeli–Palestinian conflict.
Rubio also worked to undercut Trump’s claim to be someone who was a success, and who could apply his business acumen to running the country. “If he hadn’t inherited $200 million, you know where Donald Trump would be right now? Selling watches in Manhattan,” he said.
Rubio’s campaign said his performance was meant to show that he could cut down Trump more effectively than Cruz could.
“Our goal tonight was not to knock out Donald Trump. . . . The point is, Ted’s been trying to do this for months and he hasn’t succeeded, and so we wanted to demonstrate that Marco has the ability to prosecute the case against Trump in a way that no other candidate on that stage can do. So rally behind Marco, join our campaign, let’s saddle up, and together we can unify the party, defeat Donald Trump, and defeat Hillary Clinton,” Rubio adviser Todd Harris tells National Review.
It was effective. Despite Cruz’s home-field advantage, he often seemed to fade into the background, disappearing from the screen for long periods of time as his two chief rivals battled it out.
When he did jump in, it was primarily to question Trump’s conservative bona fides. But after the debate, he made a decidedly Harry Reid–like attack on Trump, telling reporters that the fact that Trump had not yet released his tax returns suggested he might be trying to cover up evidence of fraud.
“Listen, if his audits reveal that he committed tax fraud, Republican primary voters deserve to know that now and not in the general election,” Cruz said. “We don’t need an October surprise if the audit reveals there’s something funny in the books.”
Trump, despite entering with the wind at his back, had a rough night. He spent much of the debate pursing his lips, looking displeased, and interjecting to make condescending remarks about his opponents as they continued to talk over him.
He found himself defending Planned Parenthood — an unpopular position in a Republican primary — saying it did great things for millions of women, but that he would still defund it because it performed abortions.
And he even had his own Jeb Bush moment, when he demanded that Cruz apologize to his sister, a judge, whom Cruz has deemed a liberal in ads. Cruz refused, and Trump looked about as hapless as he made Bush look so many debates ago, when the former Florida governor demanded Trump apologize to his wife, Columba.
The question, of course, is whether any of this matters. Trump has not only survived but thrived in the face of every other attack that has been thrown at him so far. His win in Nevada earlier this week was monumental: He took 45 percent of the vote, easily surpassing his supposed ceiling in the mid 30s.
Rubio and Cruz were as aggressive as they could be in attacking Trump on Thursday. Now, they need to hope that by the time one of them gets a clear shot at the front-runner, it’s not already too late.
— Alexis Levinson is the senior political reporter for National Review.