Perhaps the panic in Washington that Donald Trump will become the GOP’s 2016 nominee echoed all the way to Texas. Because at Thursday’s CNN/Telemundo debate in Houston, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz took a break from hitting each other to aim some shots at the Republican primary’s frontrunner.
Trump didn’t take these punches lying down. He steamrolled Rubio’s criticisms of his hiring practices by roaring back, “You’ve hired nobody.” And he was quick to remind Cruz that none of his colleagues in the Senate GOP had endorsed him. Many of the night’s tussles climaxed with Rubio and Cruz barking at Trump simultaneously, while Trump, in between them, effortlessly batted them both off.
The shift in strategy by Rubio and Cruz reflects a growing establishment Republican fear, days before Super Tuesday, that the GOP field hasn’t thinned fast enough for voters to coalesce around a candidate who is not Trump, who is on a three-for-four winning streak in the early primary contests.
Cruz, to be fair, had been slowly amping up his attacks on Trump in recent weeks, but only after months of a warm embrace of the bombastic reality TV star.
Rubio, meanwhile, rarely addressed Trump head-on prior to Thursday evening. But he showed up to the debate stage with a number of punchlines ready, while his campaign had the quick response emails to blast out with them.
Rubio was so set on targeting Trump that he even pivoted from an early question about Cruz’s criticisms of his immigration stance to lay into Trump’s record on the issue and specifically his practices as businessman of hiring foreign workers.
“My mom was a maid at a hotel, 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,” Rubio said.
Rubio went on to diss Trump for the lawsuit facing his “fake university” and he mocked the mogul for starting his business empire with a massive inheritance.
“If he hadn’t inherited $200 million, you know where Donald Trump would be right now, selling watches,” Rubio said.
The Florida senator was even able to turn a now-classic barb directed at Rubio towards Trump, taunting the real estate magnate: “Now he’s repeating himself.”
Cruz was comparatively less committed to attacking Trump, at least at first, but still took the opportunities to stand up to him when they presented themselves.
He used Trump’s defense of his sister’s judicial record to paint Trump as Democrat in sheep’s clothing.
“There is a reason why when Harry Reid was asked of all the people on this stage, who does he want the most, who does he like the most, Harry Reid said, Donald Trump. Why? Because Donald has supported him in the past, and he knows he can cut a deal with him,” Cruz said.
He also used comments Trump made previously about remaining “neutral” in the conflict between Israel and Palestine to compare Tump to Hillary Clinton.
“This is another area on which Donald agrees with Hillary Clinton and which I disagree with them both strongly,” Cruz said. Cruz’s bombardment of Trump picked up as the night went on, maybe because he realized that Rubio was getting in the best lines.
Cruz crystallized his main argument against Trump towards the end of the debate.
“What we’re seeing with Donald is actually the pattern of Washington dealmakers, which is they make promise, they break their words and then when anyone calls them on it, they call you a liar,” Cruz said. “That’s Donald’s pattern over and over again.”
It’s clear that both Cruz and Rubio went into Thursday’s debate hoping Friday’s headlines would say each respective candidate was the best to take on Trump. For months before this, they had tried to get those headlines by going after each other. Now that Trump is polling strong heading into March’s wave of primaries — and Rubio and Cruz are fighting to win even their own states — the question is whether this shift in strategy has come too late slow his momentum.