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The 5 biggest punches that landed on Trump in the GOP debate

Senator Marco Rubio of Florida (from left), New York businessman Donald Trump, and Senator Ted Cruz of Texas participated in Thursday’s Republican presidential primary debate.Eric Thayer/The New York Times

The Republican debates began in August, but it seemed as if just last night -- the final debate before Super Tuesday -- US Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz realized New York businessman Donald Trump was the race’s front-runner and needed to be challenged.

This was especially true for Rubio. After spending the final weeks before the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary attacking everyone but Trump, Rubio cut into the tycoon continuously during the more than two-hour debate in Texas.

Here are the five biggest punches that landed on Trump:

1. When Rubio criticized Trump on immigration, saying he’s “hired a significant number of people from other countries to take jobs that Americans could have filled” at his Mar-a-Lago club in Florida. Rubio also cited a report that Trump had hired undocumented immigrants from Poland for a construction project. These attacks undercut Trump’s core messages about illegal immigration and improving jobs for Americans.

2. When Rubio slammed Trump over Trump University (”That was a fake university! There are people who borrowed $36,000 to go to Trump University! That’s a fake school!”). This undercuts Trump’s message that he is looking out for the little guy, when, as Rubio says, he asked people to pay thousands to attend a seminar with a cardboard cutout of him.


3. When Rubio asked Trump to detail his plan for health care. (Rubio: “What is your plan? I understand the lines around the states . . . But what is your plan on health care?”) Trump has somewhat successfully stayed away from policy specifics in much of his campaign. But when it comes to health care, as Rubio pointed out during the debate, Trump was merely repeating his line about getting rid of the state-by-state insurance system to increase competition. This undercuts Trump’s image as the anti-politician -- because he was dodging specifics like a politician.


4. When Rubio attacked Trump on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict:

“The Palestinians are not a real-estate deal,” Rubio said.

“A deal is a deal,” Trump replied.

“A deal is not a deal when you’re dealing with terrorists,” Rubio countered.

Trump didn’t have an answer ready for this -- only saying he has given money to Israel and would have an open mind to both sides. That position is not anywhere in the GOP playbook on the Middle East conflict.

5. When Cruz asked for Trump’s tax returns. Trump frequently boasts about his wild success in business, but a financial disclosure form (in which he details his $10 billion net worth) has been called into question. Whether or not he has anything to hide on his tax returns, his repeated refusals to release them does not look good (His reason? An audit).

But after all that, will any of this matter? Super Tuesday is a few days away. There is no evidence that Trump’s supporters could be inclined to vote for a different candidate. Rubio landed some strong lines in what was really a two-person debate, but here’s the problem: There just might not be enough time for any of the jabs to stick.

James Pindell can be reached at james.pindell@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell or subscribe to his daily e-mail update on the 2016 campaign at bostonglobe.com/groundgame.