Marco Rubio unleashes a barrage of attacks at Donald Trump in Republican debate

Sen. Marco Rubio and Donald Trump argue Thursday during the Republican presidential primary debate in Houston.
Sen. Marco Rubio and Donald Trump argue Thursday during the Republican presidential primary debate in Houston. –Eric Thayer / The New York Times

Sen. Marco Rubio, alarmed by Donald Trump’s ascendancy and worried that his presidential chances were slipping away, unleashed a barrage of attacks on the real estate mogul’s business ethics, hiring practices and financial achievements in Thursday’s debate, forcefully delivering the onslaught that Republican leaders had desperately awaited.

In a series of acid exchanges, a newly pugnacious Rubio, long mocked for a robotic and restrained style, interrupted Trump, quizzed him, impersonated him, shouted over him and left him looking unsettled. It was an unfamiliar reversal of roles for the front-runner, who found himself so frequently the target of assaults from so many corners that he complained it must have been a ploy for better television ratings.

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From the opening moments of the debate, it was Rubio who pounced. Deploying his own up-by-the-bootstraps biography, the Florida senator assailed Trump for hiring hundreds of foreign workers at his tony resort in Florida and passing over Americans who had applied for the same jobs.

“My mom was a maid in a hotel,’’ Rubio said. “And instead of hiring an American like her, you’ve brought over 1,000 people from all over the world to fill in those jobs instead.’’

Moments later, Rubio moved to cast Trump as a huckster who outsourced the manufacturing of the clothing that bears his name to countries like Mexico and China even as he promised to wage a trade war against those countries. “You’re going to be starting a trade war against your own ties and your own suits,’’ Rubio declared.

When Trump tried to protest and wrestle his way back into the conversation, Rubio interrupted right back.

“Make them in America!’’ he demanded.

The acerbic and urgent tenor of the exchanges reflected the panicked state of a Republican field determined to halt Trump, whose crudely freewheeling style, abundant self-assuredness and durable popularity have produced three consecutive early-state victories that threaten to put the nomination out of reach for his two biggest rivals, Rubio and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.

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The two-hour rumpus frequently devolved into unmediated bouts of shouting, name-calling and pleas to the seemingly overwhelmed moderators for chances to respond to the latest insult.

“This guy’s a choke artist,’’ Trump declared, pointing to Rubio. “This guy’s a liar,’’ he said, swiveling toward Cruz.

The timing of Thursday’s debate in Houston, just days before 595 delegates are awarded in voting across the country on March 1, made it among the most anticipated and consequential debates of the Republican campaign season and the first to feature a shrunken field of five candidates.

After resounding defeats at the hands of Trump in the past two primaries, both Rubio and Cruz walked onto the stage confronting a pressing dilemma: whether to keep trying to destroy each other, their comfort zone in past debates, or to aim their fire at Trump.

They chose war with Trump. But amid the relentless back and forth, a question hovered: Was it too late?

It did not seem so, especially as Trump’s usual self-assurance gave way to a shakier and less nimble performance. After a tense exchange with Cruz over the depth of their conservatism and fidelity to the Constitution, Trump awkwardly asked for an apology.

Cruz refused, instead seizing on Trump’s values.

“Donald, I will not apologize for one minute for defending the Constitution,’’ he said.

The audience broke into applause.

Given the intractability of Trump’s support and the cruel mathematics of capturing the nomination, it was unclear whether Trump’s shakiness in the debate would blunt his momentum, especially with his impressive lead in several key states that will vote over the next few days.

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But for a single night, it seemed, the dynamic among the candidates seemed to shift, not only because Trump appeared off-balance, but because his rivals, especially Rubio, seemed looser, more comfortable and even delighted to take him on. Rubio smiled as he issued biting dissections of the less savory chapters of Trump’s business empire and even questioned the very essence of Trump’s success story, saying he was simply the heir to a vast fortune.

“If he hadn’t inherited $200 million, you know where Donald Trump would be right now? Selling watches in Manhattan?’’ Rubio said, as the audience erupted in laughter.

“That is so wrong,’’ Trump said, plaintively.

When, at another point, Trump said that Rubio did not know “anything about business,’’ the senator responded: “I don’t know anything about bankrupting four companies,’’ an allusion to Trump’s liberal use of bankruptcy protections over the years.

For Rubio, the night seemed to be a revival, allowing him to turn the most painful moment of his campaign into a remarkably effective tactic against Trump.

Earlier this month, the Florida senator inexplicably repeated himself four times in a disastrous run-in with Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey. On Thursday night, as Trump gave only a vague description of his health care proposals, Rubio gave him the Christie treatment. “What’s your plan?’’ he taunted.

When Trump spoke repeatedly about increasing competition among states — “You’ll have many, they’ll compete, and it’ll be a beautiful thing’’ — Rubio observed, “Now he’s repeating himself,’’ to raucous applause.

Trump tried to regain control, saying: “Talk about repeating. I watched him repeat himself five times four weeks ago.’’

But it was Rubio who had the last word in the exchange.

“I saw you repeat yourself five times five seconds ago,’’ Rubio zinged, laughing.

Rubio’s performance appeared pitched most directly at skeptical party elites and donors, who are banking on him as an alternative to Trump, and have grown increasingly impatient watching his sometimes passive performances.

Gov. John Kasich of Ohio, on the other hand, appeared to be making a broader appeal to the hearts of Republican and independent voters, as he heaped praise on former President George H.W. Bush, who sat in the audience with his wife, Barbara, by his side.

He infused his message with sympathy for the downtrodden and overlooked, and offered a surprising olive branch to gay voters, saying he was uncomfortable with restrictions, advocated by conservatives, that would allow businesses to deny service to same-sex couples who wish to wed.

“Today I’m not going to sell to somebody who’s gay, and tomorrow maybe I won’t sell to somebody who’s divorced,’’ Kasich said. “I mean, if you’re in the business of commerce, conduct commerce. That’s my view.’’

Kasich, who faces pressure to quit the race to clear a path for either Cruz or Rubio, showed no signs of relenting as he appealed to the party’s sense of civility, and fondly recalled Bush’s collaboration with President Ronald Reagan on immigration in the 1980s.

“It was,’’ he said, “a time when things worked.’’

Ben Carson, the retired neurosurgeon whose once-promising candidacy has fizzled, leaving him on the far edges of the campaign and the debate stage, used his rare moment in the spotlight on Thursday to once again complain about how little attention he was receiving.

“I’m going to whine,’’ he said languorously, scolding a moderator, Hugh Hewitt, for not asking him about subjects ranging from Israel to taxes.

But the pattern of the evening was the relentlessness of the attacks on Trump, who appeared to become fatigued, complaining that he was the target of all the attention because it would create good television ratings.

He faced questions about releasing his tax returns, days after Mitt Romney suggested they would include a “bombshell.’’ A moderator, radio host Hugh Hewitt, noted that Trump had promised to do so on his show last year.

“First of all, very few people listen to your radio show,’’ Trump said snappishly. “That’s the good news.’’

Trump said he would be glad to release his returns but claimed he could not do so yet because “we’re under a routine audit’’ — a plight he attributed to “the size of my company, which is very, very large.’’

Rubio and Cruz did not pass up on the opening.

“Luckily, I’m not being audited this year,’’ Rubio said puckishly. “Or last year, for that matter.’’

Cruz added: “Donald says he’s being audited. I would think that would underscore the need to release those returns.’’

Both senators said they planned to release tax documents in the coming days.

Near the end, the debate disintegrated in an almost comedic cascade of cross-talk and confusion.

Cruz urged Trump to “relax,’’

The billionaire called Cruz “a basket case.’’

“Don’t get nervous,’’ he told Cruz.

In a sign that Trump’s invulnerability, at least for the evening, was in doubt, Cruz quipped: “I promise you, Donald. There’s nothing about you that makes anyone nervous.’’

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