The 10th Republican presidential debate was a good show, as it always is with Donald Trump on the stage.
But for the first time in this unprecedented primary election, Trump could have used a little more winning. He left the stage in Houston having been pushed around for most of the night.
Standing between the two U.S. senators who remain the only obstacles between him and the GOP nomination, Trump was under assault from both Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas for a large part of the two-hour spectacle.
A little more than halfway through the raucous back-and-forth, Trump was clearly tiring, and angry at being under so much duress. When the radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt directed another question at Trump, the businessman and reality TV personality snapped at him in anger.
“Every single question comes to me? I know I’m here for the ratings, but it’s a little bit ridiculous,” he complained.
Rubio was relentless. He pushed, prodded, provoked and badgered Trump as no one else during the campaign has been able to do on a stage. Rubio, smiling much of the time, interrupted and talked over Trump rather than standing by and waiting for him to insult or belittle him.
And Cruz followed up on many of Rubio’s attacks or criticisms.
Rubio went on the offensive in his first answer, saying that Trump had only recently adopted a conservative stance on immigration, and then accusing him of hiring people from outside the country.
“Even today, 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,” he said.
He was referring to a New York Times report that showed that Trump’s Palm Beach club, Mar-a-Lago, has brought in hundreds of foreign workers with temporary visas to fill jobs, while denying or ignoring hundreds of applications from American citizens.
Essentially, Rubio was calling Trump a hypocrite, given the billionaire’s campaign rhetoric about getting jobs back for Americans who have lost them, especially to immigrants. Trump compounded this impression in an interview on CNN after the debate, arguing that “you can’t get American people” for such work.
During the debate, Rubio pointed out that the Times had interviewed a number of people who would have been willing to take the work, “if you would have been willing to hire them to do it.”
Before Trump began to counterattack, Rubio demonstrated a tactic that he employed repeatedly to great effect. He launched in on Trump from another angle, pointing out that Trump was 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. As Trump began to reject the accusation as “totally wrong,” Rubio suggested that the audience simply search on Google for the evidence.
“I’m sure people are Googling it right now. Look it up: ‘Trump Polish workers.’ You’ll see a million dollars for hiring illegal workers on one of his projects. He did it,” Rubio said. Such a search quickly leads, for example, to this July 2015 Daily Beast story, “Trump Tower Was Built on Undocumented Polish Immigrants’ Backs.”
Trump had no answer. “Be quiet. Just be quiet,” he said in disgust, waving his right arm dismissively at Rubio.
Trump did not get a breather. Cruz immediately waded in on him for not being conservative enough on immigration.
“When I was leading the fight against the ‘Gang of Eight’ amnesty bill, where was Donald? He was firing Dennis Rodman on ‘Celebrity Apprentice,’” Cruz said, mockingly.
The Texas senator, armed with his own file of facts, said that Trump had donated $50,000 to the politicians who helped pass an immigration reform bill through the Senate in 2013, which Cruz refers to as an “open borders” plan.
“When you’re funding open border politicians, you shouldn’t be surprised when they fight for open borders,” Cruz said, seeking to undercut another of Trump’s key claims, that he will have a wall built across the U.S.-Mexico border to stop all illegal immigration.
When the wall was mentioned moments later, CNN’s moderator, Wolf Blitzer, expressed skepticism that Trump would actually be able to force the Mexican government to pay for it.
How would he do this? Blitzer asked Trump. “I will,” Trump said, without elaboration.
Rubio once again started taking shots at Trump.
“If he builds the wall the way he built Trump Towers, he’ll be using illegal immigrant labor to do it,” he said. Trump rolled his eyes but did not respond. “The second thing, about the trade war,” Rubio went on, “I don’t understand, because your ties and the clothes you make [are] made in Mexico and in China. So you’re gonna be starting a trade war against your own ties and your own suits.”
Rubio pestered Trump eight times about why he didn’t make his ties and branded clothing line in the United States rather than in China and Mexico. Rubio then pivoted quickly to another attack, punching from a different angle.
As Trump was objecting that Rubio didn’t know anything about his reasons for manufacturing his clothing line in China, Rubio shot back: “Well, I don’t know anything about bankrupting four companies.”
Then he launched in again. “I don’t know anything about starting a university, and that was a fake university. There are people who borrowed $36,000 to go to Trump University, and they’re suing now,” Rubio said, discussing the ongoing lawsuit against the school (now defunct) in which Trump has been called to testify under oath.
“That’s a fake school. And you know what they got? They got to take a picture with a cardboard cutout of Donald Trump.”
Trump tried repeatedly to stop Rubio from talking and to get a word in himself, but remarkably, failed to do so. Finally, he went after Rubio for profiting from a home sale.
“Here’s a guy, here’s a guy that buys a house for $179,000, he sells it to a lobbyist — who’s probably here — for $380,000, and then legislation is passed,” Trump said.
Rubio came quickly back with another one-liner. “Here’s a guy that inherited $200 million,” he responded. “If he hadn’t inherited $200 million, you know where Donald Trump would be right now?”
Back and forth it went for much of the night.
This all led up to the most punishing blow Rubio landed, again refusing to let Trump get away with a superficial answer on how he would reform the U.S. health care system. Casually but with a touch of disdain, Rubio pressed Trump on what his plan for health insurance reform would be, other than allowing customers to shop across state lines for a plan.
“What is your plan, Mr. Trump?” Rubio said. “What is your plan on health care?”
“You don’t know,” Trump replied. “The biggest problem — ”
“What’s your plan?” Rubio asked again.
“The biggest problem, I’ll have you know…” Trump said, before being interrupted once again.
“What’s your plan?” Rubio said.
Trump gave up, instead mocking Rubio for his near-catastrophic debate performance Feb. 6 in New Hampshire, when New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie badgered the Florida senator into repeating himself multiple times in a way that was subsequently mocked as robotic.
But as Trump once again invoked purchasing health plans across state lines, Rubio used Christie’s tactic against him.
“Now he’s repeating himself,” Rubio said. The audience cheered loudly and knowingly, acknowledging that Rubio was not only demonstrating a toughness that he had not shown under fire from Christie, but was using against Trump the accusation Christie used against him.
Trump was flustered.
“Is there anything else you would like to add to that?” CNN’s Dana Bash asked Trump.
“No, there’s nothing to add,” Trump said.
Trump then came in for questions over whether he would release his tax returns. He replied that because he is being audited by the Internal Revenue Service, he does not want to release them until the audit is completed, and noted that his taxes have been audited for 12 years straight.
Rubio also made light of Trump’s approach to the Middle East peace process. Even radio talk show host Glenn Beck, a big supporter of Cruz, tweeted: “Rubio is killing it.”
Ahead of next Tuesday’s primary voting in a dozen states, Rubio and Cruz both need to arrest Trump’s momentum. On Thursday night, each did about as good a job as they possibly could to change the shape of the race.
But Trump has proven hard to stop, and the next few days will reveal whether the Houston debate marked a change in the dynamics of the race or simply amounted to a few uncomfortable moments for Trump on the way to winning the nomination.
(Cover tile photo: David J. Phillip/AP)