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Debate brawl: Rubio and Cruz go hard after Trump

UPDATED: Thu., Feb. 25, 2016

Nancy Benac and Julie Bykowicz Associated Press

HOUSTON – Brawling from the get-go, a fiery Marco Rubio went hard after Donald Trump in Thursday’s Republican debate, lacerating the front-runner’s position on immigration, his privileged background, his speaking style and more.

Ted Cruz piled on, questioning the front-runner’s conservative credentials, as the two senators tag-teamed Trump in a debate that reflected the increasing urgency of their effort to take down the billionaire businessman before he becomes unstoppable. It was a rare night where the bombastic Trump found himself on the defensive.

The two-hours-plus debate played out as a raucous night of tit-for-tat insults, with candidates shouting over one another so much that it was hard to follow at times. The showdown came just days before the Super Tuesday 11-state round of mega-voting that could all but lock up the nomination.

Rubio accused Trump of shifting his position on deportation, hiring people from other countries to take jobs from Americans and being fined for worker violations. Joining in, Cruz criticized Trump for suggesting he alone had “discovered the issue of illegal immigration.”

Trump shot back at Rubio: “I hired tens of thousands of people. You’ve hired nobody.”

The candidates were pressed on why they haven’t released their tax returns as promised. The GOP’s 2012 nominee, Mitt Romney, suggested this week Trump was holding back because there was a “bombshell” that would be revealed.

Trump said he’s been audited by the IRS every year and can’t release his returns while that’s going on.

Rubio and Cruz promised to release more of theirs in the next two days.

Rubio was the principal aggressor of the night. Taking on Trump’s declaration he’d build a wall on the Mexican border, Rubio declared: “If he builds a wall the way he built Trump Tower he’ll be using illegal immigrant labor to do it.”

Trump, for his part, insisted even though officials in Mexico have said they won’t pay for his planned wall, “Mexico will pay for the wall.” And he said because Mexico’s current and former presidents had criticized him on the issue, “the wall just got 10 feet taller.”

After Trump mocked Rubio for his “meltdown” in a previous debate when the senator repeated rote talking points, Rubio swatted right back, scolding Trump for spouting the same five things: “Everyone’s dumb. He’s going to make America great again. We’re going to win, win, win. He’s winning in the polls.”

There was this back-and-forth after one particularly heated exchange:

Cruz to Trump: “Donald, relax.”

Trump to Cruz: “I’m relaxed. You’re the basket case.”

The debate’s location in Houston gave a nod to the primacy of Texas in the Super Tuesday voting: There are 595 delegates at stake, 155 in Texas.

The debate audience included former President George H.W. Bush, 91, and his wife, Barbara.

Ben Carson and John Kasich were left to watch fireworks flying overhead.

At one point, Carson spoke up: “Can somebody attack me please.”

Later, he complained, “I didn’t get asked about taxes, I didn’t get asked about Israel.” When all five were asked about North Korea’s president, he said, “We should make sure that he knows that if he ever shoots a missile at us it’ll be the last thing he does.”

Kasich said he would try to find a way to effect regime change in North Korea but “perhaps the Chinese can actually accomplish that.”

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