And on the 10th debate, Marco Rubio took on Donald Trump.
Over once backing a pathway to citizenship for immigrants in the country illegally. Over hiring foreigners for jobs South Floridians said they would have filled. Over creating a failed, namesake for-profit university. Over manufacturing his name-branded clothes in Mexico and China.
Pow. Pow. Pow. Pow. The Florida senator dumped the opposition-research file on the New York real-estate developer, now that Trump seems on the verge of sweeping the upcoming Super Tuesday elections.
But will it be enough?
Rubio waited until Thursday’s Republican primary debate to show party bigwigs and skeptical voters that he can joust with Trump. He’d been reluctant to do so earlier, when more candidates jostled for attention on the stage, when he had former Gov. Jeb Bush to take aim at Trump, and when Rubio could get by with strong delivery and a focus on his aspirational campaign pitch.
Now the candidate field is down to five — Trump, Rubio, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson — and all his challengers need to slow Trump’s ascent. He has won three of the last four electoral contests, in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada. No candidate has ever done that and lost the presidential nomination.
So Rubio — and Cruz — targeted Trump in earnest. At times, the debate, hosted by CNN, Telemundo and the Salem Radio Network at the University of Houston, seemed like it included only the three of them: Trump, standing center stage, with Rubio and Cruz on each side, taking turns to try to land a knockout blow.
“You’re really getting beaten badly. I know you’re embarrassed,” Trump remarked at one point, specifically at Cruz but then turning to Rubio. “I know you’re embarrassed. I know you’re embarrassed. But keep fighting. Swing for the fences!”
Later, he found another way to put it: “This guy’s a choke artist,” he said, pointing at Rubio. “And this guy is a liar,” he said, pointing at Cruz.
Rubio’s strategy: to interrupt Trump, repeatedly, debate rules be damned. He even accused Trump of being repetitive — the same attack that so badly hurt Rubio in New Hampshire when then-rival Chris Christie leveled it against him. Trump, in turn, mentioned Rubio’s mismanagement of his personal finances.
“Here’s a guy that buys a house for $179,000, he sells it to a lobbyist — who’s probably here — for $380,000 and then legislation is passed. You tell me about this guy. This is what we’re going to have as president,” Trump said.
“Here’s a guy that inherited $200 million,” Rubio retorted. “If he hadn’t inherited $200 million, you know where Donald Trump would be right now? Selling watches in New York!”
Rubio’s tactic worked, at least on television, to the extent that any punches work against the seemingly unstoppable celebrity front-runner. But Trump, a vastly improved debater, was also quick on his feet.
“He lied this time. He lied. 100 percent. 100 percent,” Trump said after Rubio gave a lengthy explanation for what he would do about President Barack Obama’s executive action on immigration that protected from deportation scores of young people in the country illegally.
“You lied about the Polish workers,” Rubio said, referring to a judgment filed against Trump’s organization.
Trump: “Yes, yes, yes.”
Rubio: “You lied to the students at Trump University.”
Trump, still referring to the Polish workers: “Thirty-eight years ago.”
“Oh, he lied 38 years ago,” Rubio said. “All right, I guess there’s a statute of limitation on lies.”
With a flourish, he took a swig of water — the same move that made him the butt of late-night comic jokes three years ago when he gave the Republican State of the Union response. This time, it was as if he had dropped the microphone in triumph.
With only four days left until nearly half of GOP nominating delegates are decided Tuesday, though, it’s unclear whether Rubio’s bruises will actually leave a mark. By this point, many Republicans have started to accept the prospect of Trump as their nominee.
“Now’s the time to narrow it down,” Rubio implored at the debate’s end, asking voters to join him to “end this silliness, this looniness.”
Thursday’s debate had been temporarily in limbo. The Republican National Committee punished the original host, NBC News, by taking the network off the debate after a CNBC debate in which candidates judged moderators’ questions unfair. Miami-based Telemundo, which is owned by NBC, was allowed to stay, as the only Spanish-language network participating in a GOP debate.
In a nod to Telemundo’s audience, which was watching with live translations of key moments, the candidates spent the first part of the debate fielding questions about immigration reform and Hispanic outreach. When it came to Trump and what wall he’s pledged to build along the southern U.S. border, CNN moderator Wolf Blitzer inquired about a remark by former Mexican President Vicente Fox.
“I’m not going to pay for that f---ing wall,” Fox said — or, as Blitzer put it, “effing wall.” (The word Fox used in Spanish was a Mexican favorite, “pinche.”)
“How are you going to make them pay for that wall?” Blitzer asked.
“I will,” Trump said, without offering a concrete answer. “And the wall just got 10 feet taller, believe me.” (“If I had used even half of that word, it would have been a national scandal,” said Trump, who recently said the word “p---y” in one of his rallies. “This guy used a filthy, disgusting word on television.”)
“If he builds the wall the way he built Trump towers,” Rubio stepped in, “he’ll be using illegal immigrant labor to do it.”
“Such a cute sound bite,” Trump shot back.