HOUSTON — Marco Rubio unleashed a barrage of attacks on Donald Trump in a debate Thursday, assailing the Republican front-runner with more gusto than anyone so far in the primary, slamming everything from his hiring practices to where his Trump-branded ties are made.
“If he hadn’t inherited $200 million, you know where Donald Trump would be right now?” Rubio asked, with a sly smile. “Selling watches in Manhattan.”
Trump responded with disdain.
“I’m the only one on this stage who’s hired people!” Trump said. “You’ve had nothing but problems with your credit cards et cetera,” he added, referring to issues Rubio has had with his personal finances. “You haven’t hired one person, you liar.”
Rubio was relentless, often talking over Trump and bringing up new lines of attack.
“Be quiet,” Trump said during one exchange. “Just be quiet.”
The debate in Houston was one of the last opportunities for Trump’s rivals to slow his momentum before Super Tuesday next week, when a sweep of the states would mean Trump would be nearly unstoppable in the march toward the Republican presidential nomination. Not coincidentally, it was the most ferocious debate thus far.
From the opening minutes, Rubio — who has emerged as the GOP establishment’s favored candidate — criticized Trump for hiring foreign workers to do maintenance on his estate in Palm Beach, Fla., something Trump said he had to do for seasonal work.
Eventually Ted Cruz also got into the fray.
“In 2013 when I was leading the fight against the ‘Gang of Eight’ amnesty bill, where was Donald?” he said. “He was firing Dennis Rodman on ‘Celebrity Apprentice.’ ”
Cruz also criticized Trump for past donations he has made to Democrats, including some who worked on an immigration overhaul legislation.
“I got along with everybody,” Trump said, before turning to Cruz. “You get along with nobody. . . . You don’t have the endorsement of one Republican senator, and you work with them. You should be ashamed of yourself.”
“Donald, if you want to be liked in Washington, that’s not a good attribute for a president,” Cruz responded.
Trump at times seemed flummoxed, standing in the middle of aggressive candidates.
“I know you’re embarrassed. I know you’re embarrassed,” he said, looking at Cruz and Rubio. “Keep fighting. Keep swinging, man. Swing for the fences.”
The debate came amid intensifying concern among more moderate Republicans that Trump was on the verge of steamrolling to the nomination. Having won three of the first four contests, he also leads in many of the 12 states, including Massachusetts, that are set to vote on Super Tuesday. If his momentum is not halted by mid-March, he will be in position to amass enough delegates to put the nomination out of reach of his opponents.
On the subject of tax returns, which former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney ignited this week by calling for public release of Trump’s returns and asserting they may contain a “bombshell,’’ Rubio and Cruz said they would release theirs as soon as Friday.
But Trump said he’s been audited for “12 years in a row at least.” He said that he is currently being audited for the “last four or five years” and that he would not release tax returns until the audits are complete. He gave no timetable.
“Mitt Romney looked like a fool when he delayed and delayed and delayed,” Trump said, referring to Romney’s 2012 campaign for president. “As far as my return, I want to file it except . . . I can’t do it until the audit is finished.”
With the debate ongoing, Romney tweeted there was “no legit reason [Trump] can’t release returns while being audited, but if scared, release earlier returns no longer under audit.”
The debate took place at the University of Houston, in Cruz’s home state. Texas is the biggest prize on Super Tuesday, with 155 delegates at stake. Recent polls have showed a close race between Trump and Cruz, with Rubio a distant third.
In previous debates, Trump often has been able to float above the fray of the other candidates, who have largely focused on one another rather than attempting to take Trump down. But with a much smaller stage — just five candidates remain — Trump became the central figure.
Rubio came armed with an arsenal of attack lines.
“If he builds the wall the way he built Trump Towers, he’ll be using illegal immigrant labor to do it,” Rubio said, directly urging debate viewers to Google “Polish workers’’ and “Trump.”
“Such a cute sound bite,” Trump sarcastically responded.
Rubio noted that Trump’s line of suits and ties have been made in Mexico and China.
“You’re going to be starting a trade war against your own ties and suits,” Rubio said.
“You don’t know anything about business,” Trump responded. “You lose at everything you do.”
That spurred Rubio to bring up Trump’s business record, in which he took his company into bankruptcy four times. Then he brought up a lawsuit over his educational program. “A fake university!” Rubio said. “A fake university!”
Trump then chided Rubio’s own record in real estate.
“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,” Trump said. “You tell me about this guy. This is what we’re going to have as president.”
Rubio also criticized Trump for lack of policy depth on health care and his unwillingness to provide details on what he would do after repealing President Obama’s health care law. “What’s your plan?” Rubio asked. “What’s your plan?”
“It’ll be a beautiful thing,” Trump said.
Trump spoke over and over about eliminating “the lines around the states” to encourage more competition among insurance companies.
After he said it eight times over about a minute, Rubio, who was criticized for robotically delivering the same lines during a debate in New Hampshire, jumped in.
“Now,” he said, “he’s repeating himself.”
Cruz won the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 1. But he is coming off a dismal week, in which he finished third in South Carolina and was besieged by attacks from both Trump and Rubio, who called him a liar and a cheat.
The biggest problem for Rubio is he has yet to win a state. He is eager to establish himself as the main alternative to Trump, having narrowly beaten Cruz in both South Carolina and Nevada, and he desperately needs victories on Tuesday.
Hispanics are a rapidly growing portion of the American electorate and, polls show, are disenchanted by some of the hardline immigration positions taken by Republican candidates.
Trump mentions at almost every campaign stop that he would build a “beautiful” wall along the Mexican border and that the Mexican government would pay for it.
Trump was asked to respond to former Mexican president Vicente Fox, who recently said, “I’m not going to pay for that [expletive] wall! He should pay for it. He’s got the money.”
“The wall just got 10 feet taller. Believe me,” Trump said.
Trump dismissed any notion that his hostile rhetoric about Hispanics would prevent the party from being about to expand its reach.
“We are building a new Republican Party: A lot of new people are coming in,” Trump said. “I will do really well with Hispanics. I’m bringing independents over, and we’re building a much bigger, much stronger Republican Party.”
But Trump broke with Republicans midway through the debate, praising some of the programs offered by Planned Parenthood, an organization that many conservative loathe for its involvement in abortion.
“Millions and millions of women — cervical cancer, breast cancer — are helped by Planned Parenthood,” Trump said. “I would defund it, because I’m pro-life. But millions of women are helped by Planned Parenthood.”
Governor John Kasich of Ohio has faced some calls for him to end his campaign to make way for a consensus, anti-Trump candidate, but he has shown little appetite to leave the race before Ohio votes in a winner-take-all contest on March 15.
Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson has has become a nonfactor.
“Can somebody attack me please?” he pleaded at another point, hoping for any way into the discussion.