New York Times
By Michael Barbaro
February 25, 2016
Senator Marco Rubio, alarmed by Donald J. 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 Mr. Rubio, long mocked for a robotic and restrained style, interrupted Mr. 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 Mr. Rubio and Senator Ted Cruz that he complained they must have been a ploy for better television ratings.
“My mom was a maid in a hotel,” Mr. 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, Mr. Rubio moved to cast Mr. 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.
When Mr. Trump tried to protest, Mr. 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 Mr. 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, Mr. Rubio and Mr. Cruz.
The two-hour rumpus frequently devolved into unmediated bouts of shouting, name-calling and pleas to the moderators for chances to respond to the latest insult.
“This guy’s a choke artist,” Mr. Trump declared, pointing to Mr. Rubio. “This guy’s a liar,” he said, swiveling toward Mr. Cruz.
The timing of Thursday’s debate in Houston, 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 Mr. Trump in the past two primaries, both Mr. Rubio and Mr. Cruz walked onto the stage confronting treacherous paths ahead and a pressing dilemma: whether to keep trying to destroy each other, their comfort zone in past debates, or to aim their fire at Mr. Trump.
They chose war with Mr. Trump. But amid the relentless back and forth, a question hovered: Was it too late?
The Old Guard Looks On
It did not seem so, as Mr. Trump’s usual bravado gave way to a less nimble performance. After a tense exchange with Mr. Cruz over the depth of their conservatism and fidelity to the Constitution, Mr. Trump awkwardly asked for an apology.
Mr. Cruz refused, instead seizing on Mr. 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 Mr. Trump’s support and the cruel mathematics of capturing the nomination, it was unclear whether his 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.
But for a single night, it seemed, the dynamic among the candidates shifted, not only because Mr. Trump appeared off-balance at times, but because his rivals seemed looser, more comfortable and even delighted to take him on. Mr. Rubio smiled as he issued biting dissections of the less savory chapters of Mr. Trump’s business history and even questioned the very essence of Mr. 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?” Mr. Rubio said, as the audience erupted in laughter.
“That is so wrong,” Mr. Trump said, plaintively.
When, at another point, Mr. Trump said that Mr. Rubio did not know “anything about business,” the senator responded: “I don’t know anything about bankrupting four companies,” an allusion to Mr. Trump’s liberal use of bankruptcy protections over the years.
For Mr. Rubio, the night seemed to be something of a revival, allowing him to turn the most painful moment of his campaign into an effective tactic against Mr. Trump. Earlier this month, he repeated himself four times in a disastrous debate-night run-in with Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey. On Thursday night, as Mr. Trump gave only a vague description of his health care proposals, Mr. Rubio gave him the Christie treatment. “What’s your plan?” he taunted.
When Mr. Trump spoke repeatedly about increasing competition among states — “You’ll have many, they’ll compete, and it’ll be a beautiful thing” — Mr. Rubio observed, “Now he’s repeating himself,” to raucous applause.
Mr. Trump tried to regain control, saying: “Talk about repeating. I watched him repeat himself five times four weeks ago.”
But it was Mr. Rubio who had the last word.
“I saw you repeat yourself five times five seconds ago,” he zinged, laughing.
Mr. Rubio’s performance appeared to be pitched most directly at skeptical party elites and donors, who are banking on him as an alternative to Mr. Trump and have grown increasingly impatient watching his sometimes passive performances. Gov. John Kasich of Ohio, on the other hand, seemed to be making a broader appeal to the hearts of Republican and independent voters as he heaped praise on former President George Bush, who sat in the audience with his wife, Barbara Bush, by his side.
Mr. Kasich 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,” Mr. Kasich said. “I mean, if you’re in the business of commerce, conduct commerce. That’s my view.”
Mr. Kasich, who faces pressure to quit the race to clear a path for either Mr. Cruz or Mr. Rubio, showed no signs of relenting as he appealed to the party’s sense of civility and fondly recalled Mr. 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 complain once again 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 Mr. Trump, who appeared to become fatigued and defensive as the evening wore on. He faced questions about releasing his tax returns, days after Mitt Romney suggested they would include a “bombshell.” Mr. Hewitt noted that Mr. Trump had promised on his show last year that he would do so.
The New York Times will be checking assertions made throughout the 2016 presidential campaign.
“First of all, very few people listen to your radio show,” Mr. Trump said snappishly. “That’s the good news.”
Mr. 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.”
That provided an opening for yet another chaotic pile-on from the senators.
“Luckily, I’m not being audited this year,” Mr. Rubio said puckishly. “Or last year, for that matter.”
Mr. 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 into an almost comedic cascade of cross-talk and confusion.
Mr. Cruz urged Mr. Trump to “relax.”
Mr. Trump called Mr. Cruz “a basket case.”
“Don’t get nervous,” he told Mr. Cruz.
In a sign that Mr. Trump’s aura of invulnerability, at least for the evening, was in doubt, Mr. Cruz quipped, “I promise you, Donald, there’s nothing about you that makes anyone nervous.”
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