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Houston, Trump may have a problem: Rubio trips up frontrunner at debate

The Guardian logo The Guardian 26/02/2016 Ben Jacobs and Tom Dart in Houston

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Marco Rubio took the fight to Donald Trump on Thursday night. With assistance from Ted Cruz, the Florida senator unleashed an all-encompassing attack on Trump’s business record and policy acumen that has the potential to shake up the Republican presidential race.

Trump, who has emerged as the Republican frontrunner with remarkably little vetting, was consistently attacked for employing foreign and illegal workers, over his business record and regarding his lack of policy specifics. 

Rubio gleefully mocked him: “You say the same thing every night.” The Florida senator then gave his own parody of Trump’s stump speech: “Everyone’s dumb, I’m going to make America great again, I’m winning in the polls, lines around the states, every night.”

The exchanges were the first time rival candidates have used the debate stage to go after the very foundation of Trump’s campaign – his experience as a businessman, his assertion that he is the only candidate who can be relied upon to be a stalwart opponent of illegal immigration and his belief in “winning”.

It left Trump stuttering and defensive.

“I don’t repeat myself,” he said, as he struggled through another tough exchange with Rubio. “I don’t repeat myself. I don’t repeat myself.”

The concerted tag team attacks and the frontrunner’s counterpunching left John Kasich and Ben Carson as relative bystanders. At one point, Carson even pleaded: “Can somebody attack me?”

Trump has built a populist movement of discontented blue collar voters very different from the fiscally and socially conservative coalition that George W Bush once relied upon. As he said on stage: “We are building a new Republican Party. A lot of new people are coming in.”

But on Thursday his rivals used his past heresies to try to discredit him with those voters and consolidate their own appeal among Republicans who disdain Trump.

Republican U.S. presidential candidates Marco Rubio (L) and Donald Trump speak simultaneously at the debate sponsored by CNN for the 2016 Republican U.S. presidential candidates. © Reuters Republican U.S. presidential candidates Marco Rubio (L) and Donald Trump speak simultaneously at the debate sponsored by CNN for the 2016 Republican U.S. presidential candidates. Rubio used immigration, long the defining issue of Trump’s campaign, as a cudgel from the very beginning. The first question, from CNN moderator Wolf Blitzer, was on Trump’s plan to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants but to let “the good ones” back in. Rubio seized the opportunity.

“The truth is, though, that a lot of these positions that he’s now taking are new to him,” the Florida senator said.

Trump is attacked by Rubio and Cruz over immigration at Republican debate.

He referred to a New York Times story on Thursday that claimed that Trump’s exclusive club in Palm Beach, Florida, has pursued more than 500 temporary foreign worker visas since 2010 and hired only a handful of US residents.

“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,” Rubio said.

“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 a thousand people from all over the world to fill those jobs instead.”

Trump said this was because of a lack of available American workers.

“They were part-time jobs,” he said. “You needed them, or we just might as well close the doors, because you couldn’t get help in those hot, hot sections of Florida.”

Rubio then mentioned reports claiming that undocumented immigrants have worked at Trump properties. In the 1980s Trump faced a lawsuit alleging that undocumented Polish demolition workers worked on Trump Tower in Manhattan; the suit was not settled until 1999, and the settlement never made public. A 2015 Washington Post story suggested undocumented workers were potentially involved in building a new luxury hotel in the city.

“You’re the only person on this stage that has ever been fined for hiring people to work on your projects illegally. You hired some workers from Poland,” Rubio said, adding that Trump was forced to pay “a million dollars or so” in a judgment.

Trump said this was “totally wrong” and hit back: “I’m the only one on the stage that’s hired people. You haven’t hired anybody.”

“If he builds the [border] wall the way he built Trump Towers he’ll be using illegal immigrant labour to do it,” Rubio said.

“I’ve hired tens of thousands of people,” Trump said. “He brings up something from 30 years ago. It worked out very well. Everybody was happy.”

Cruz, largely a bystander during the early exchanges, reiterated that he would not offer a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and attacked Trump as a Johnny Come Lately.  In 2013, when I was fighting the amnesty bill, where was Donald? He was firing Dennis Rodman on Celebrity Apprentice.

“I really find it amazing that Donald believes that he is the one who discovered the issue of illegal immigration,” sneered Cruz. “I can tell you, when I ran for Senate here in the state of Texas, I ran promising to lead the fight against amnesty, promising to fight to build a wall.

“And in 2013, when I was fighting against the ‘gang of eight’ amnesty bill, where was Donald? He was firing Dennis Rodman on Celebrity Apprentice.”

Rubio also repeatedly hit Trump on his business record, including the checkered past of Trump University, a for-profit enterprise that promised to teach attendees about the real estate world. Trump is facing several lawsuits in federal court from unhappy customers of what Rubio said was “a fake university”.

The attack was echoed by Cruz, who referenced one coming case. He bleakly warned that Trump’s “lawyers have scheduled the trial for July” and alleged the mainstream media would make hay if “the Republican nominee [was] in court on the stand being cross-examined about whether he has committed fraud”.

Trump claimed the allegations in the case were “nonsense” and insisted that he had only refused to settle the case out of principle.

Rubio jibed: “You know where Donald Trump would be if he hadn’t inherited $200m? Selling watches in Manhattan.”

Trump was also left staggering after another assault from Rubio on his healthcare plan. Trump insisted he would “get rid of the lines around states”, without providing further detail, and resorted to bringing up Rubio’s implosion in the New Hampshire debate against Chris Christie as a defense.

“I watched him repeat himself five times four weeks ago,” Trump insisted.

But Rubio fired back, noting: “I just watched you repeat yourself five times five seconds ago.”

Trump kept on trying to change the subject to the New Hampshire debate.

Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz shake hands while Donald Trump stands by © Provided by Guardian News Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz shake hands while Donald Trump stands by

Trump was then repeatedly hit on a supposed reluctance to release his tax returns, a subject that 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney – no stranger to the issue – has brought up in recent days. Both Cruz and Rubio made clear that they will release their tax returns in the coming days, Rubio saying his were coming Friday or Saturday. In contrast, Trump said he could not release his tax returns because of an ongoing audit.

“Every year they audit me,” Trump said. “I will absolutely file my returns but I’m being audited now for two or three years and I can’t do it until the audit is finished.”

The debate was held five days before the critical Super Tuesday primaries. Twelve states will vote on 1 March in the single largest delegate haul of the entire GOP primary.

Texas, with 155 delegates, is the largest of the 12 which range from conservative southern states like Alabama and Georgia to liberal outposts in New England like Vermont and Massachusetts.

Trump has led in recent public polls in almost every Super Tuesday state. The exception is Texas, Cruz’s home state, where the conservative senator is maintaining a narrow lead. Trump leads Rubio in Florida.

The question now is whether those leads will crumble after such repeated attacks. Trump has so far weathered a parade of controversies and gaffes, each of which would have likely torpedoed almost any other candidate’s campaign.

In the spin room, Trump dismissed Rubio.

“I thought he was ineffective,” he said. “I think he was a weak guy. I thought Ted Cruz did better but what do I know.”

Rubio, he said, was a “choke artist”.

At times, the debate descended into little more than a slanging match, candidates speaking angrily over each other.

“Donald, you can get back on your meds now,” Cruz said during one exchange.

“I’m relaxed. You’re the basket case,” Trump said.

Carson, speaking to reporters afterwards, sought to sum it all up.

“It’s clear this was all about ratings and fights,” he said. “Unfortunately, the audience didn’t help because when people would fight they would yell ‘Yeah! Yeah!’ like it was gladiators.”

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