HOUSTON (CBSNewYork/AP) — The GOP presidential candidates are barreling into the final stretch to Super Tuesday after a name-calling, insult-trading, finger-pointing final debate.
The Houston debate featured a tag-team attack on Donald Trump by Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz. Both senators are anxious to take down the front-runner before it’s too late to stop him.
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.
When Trump faulted Rubio on a deal to buy a $179,000 house, the Florida senator shot back that if Trump “hadn’t inherited $200 million, you know where Donald Trump would be right now? Selling watches in Manhattan.”
In another rough exchange, 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.”
As for Cruz, Trump took a more personal tack, touting his own ability to get along with others and adding: “You don’t have the endorsement of one Republican senator and you work with these people. You should be ashamed of yourself.”
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 that 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 both promised to release more of theirs in the next two days.
Rubio was the principal aggressor of the night, and he held nothing back. Taking on Trump’s declaration that 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 that even though officials in Mexico have said they won’t pay for his planned wall, “Mexico will pay for the wall.” And he said that 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 Florida senator repeated rote talking points, Rubio swatted right back, scolding Trump for spouting the same five things over and over: “Everyone’s dumb. He’s going to make America great again. We’re going to win, win, win. He’s winning in the polls.”
Trump was hardly silent, responding to both Rubio and Cruz: “This guy’s a choke artist and this guy’s a liar. — Other than that I rest my case.”
The other two remaining candidates, Ben Carson and John Kasich, were largely left to watch the fireworks flying overhead.
At one point, as the top three candidates mixed it up, 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, for his part, said he would try to find a way to effect regime change in North Korean but “perhaps the Chinese can actually accomplish that.”
Eleven states vote on Tuesday, with 595 delegates at stake. Trump has three straight victories behind him, and momentum on his side. His rivals know they have to change that dynamic to halt Trump’s march toward the nomination.
It is far from clear that Thursday’s debate did much to solve their basic conundrum. Trump and Rubio are struggling to emerge as the clear alternative to the front-runner as non-Trump voters divide their support among the alternatives.
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