HOUSTON — After a string of three losses in a row to Donald Trump, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz took turns going after the Republican frontrunner's immigration record at the last debate before Super Tuesday.
Rubio began the attacks by responding to Trump's well-worn line that the only reason immigration has become an issue in the Republican primary is because he inserted it into the discussion.
"In 2011, he talked about the need for a pathway to citizenship," Rubio said. "In 2012, Donald criticized Mitt Romney, saying that Mitt lost his election because of self-deportation."
Rubio was referencing an interview after the 2012 election when Trump said Romney "had a crazy policy of self-deportation, which was maniacal." At the time, Trump said Romney lost all of the Latino and Asian vote — "he lost everybody who is inspired to come into this country.”
On Thursday, Rubio argued Trump hired undocumented workers from different countries to take jobs Americans could have filled.
"My mom and dad — my mom was a maid at a hotel, and instead of hiring an American like her, you have brought in over a thousand people from all over the world to fill those jobs instead," Rubio said.
Trump has hired foreign guest workers in the past at Mar-a-Lago, the resort property that he owns in Palm Beach, Florida. On Thursday night, Rubio's campaign was ready, also pulling the trigger on an email linking to a Daily Beast article from last summer that said Trump Tower was built on the backs of undocumented Polish workers.
Trump argued that the undocumented workers he has hired have been in places like Palm Beach, Florida, during "the absolute prime season" when it was difficult to hire people for seasonal part-time jobs.
"I'm the only one on the stage that's hired people," Trump said to Rubio. "You haven't hired anybody."
"Yes, you've hired a thousand from another country," Rubio shot back.
But it wasn't just Rubio that came prepared to hit Trump with new lines he hadn't used before. Cruz came prepared both with a one-liner against Trump, and a new line of attack over his donations to both parties.
"I can tell you, when I ran for Senate here in the state of Texas, I ran promising to lead the fight against amnesty, promising to fight to build a wall," Cruz said. "And in 2013, when I was fight against the 'Gang of Eight' amnesty bill, where was Donald? He was firing Dennis Rodman on Celebrity Apprentice.
Of the bipartisan Gang of 8 senators who crafted immigration legislation in 2013, Cruz said, "Donald gave over $50,000 to three Democrats and two Republicans. And when you're funding open border politicians, you shouldn't be surprised when they fight for open borders."
Cruz and Rubio who at times have been the two candidates most at each other's throats during debates, and mostly on the issue of immigration, tag teamed him.
"And by the way, Marco is exactly right that a federal court found Donald guilty of being part of a conspiracy to hire people illegally and entered a $1 million judgment against him," Cruz said.
But Trump who rocketed to the top of the polls on the strength of his ability to hit back hard in the rare instances when he is challenged, reiterated that he has had "amazing" relationships with politicians as a businessman and took aim at Cruz's reputation as someone with few friends among those who know him.
"You don't have the endorsement of one Republican senator and you work with these people," Trump said. "You should be ashamed of yourself."
But it wasn't just Cruz and Rubio who challenged Trump on specifics; the moderators challenged him on his contention that Mexico will pay for the border wall he has proposed, based solely on the force of him telling them they should.
"The spokesperson for the current president of Mexico says that will never happen," CNN's Wolf Blitzer said to Trump, noting that its former presidents say it won't happen, either.
Blitzer then quoted an interview with former Mexican president Vicente Fox hours before the debate who added, "I'm not going to pay for that fucking wall."
If Trump doesn't get a check from the Mexican government for $8 billion or $10 billion or $12 billion, Blitzer asked him, "how are you going to make them pay for the wall?"
"I will, and the wall just got 10 feet taller, believe me," Trump said.
"If the Mexicans don't pay for the wall, will you start a trade war with Mexico?" Blitzer followed up.
"Well, you know, I don't mind trade wars when we're losing $58 billion a year, you want to know the truth," Trump responded.
Rubio, perhaps sensing that he is running out of time to weaken Trump, was unrelenting in attacks against him he long avoided.
"I don't understand, because your ties and the clothes you make are made in Mexico and in China," Rubio said, in one of his many effective one-liners of the night. "So you're gonna be starting a trade war against your own ties and your own suits?"
But with Trump gaining momentum and Super Tuesday looming, it's unclear if the night's exchanges from Cruz and Rubio will be enough to hurt him.
He didn't seem too concerned during the back and forth.
"If he builds the wall the way he built Trump Towers, he'll be using illegal immigrant labor to do it," Rubio said to applause at one point.
"Such a cute sound bite," Trump responded.
Adrian Carrasquillo is the White House correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.
Contact Adrian Carrasquillo at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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