Rivals gang up on Donald Trump in wildest GOP debate yet

Donald Trump Ted Cruz Marco Rubio Houston Republican Debate 2016Michael Ciaglo-Pool/Getty ImagesRepublican presidential candidates Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) (L) and Ted Cruz (R-TX)(R) listen as Donald Trump answers a question during the Republican presidential debate at the Moores School of Music at the University of Houston on February 25, 2016 in Houston, Texas.

Marco Rubio’s campaign telegraphed that its candidate would not attack GOP frontrunner Donald Trump in Thursday night’s Republican debate.

He spent most of the night doing the opposite.

Rubio, the Florida senator, and his fellow Republican presidential candidates went hard and often after Trump the CNN debate, in what turned out to be the biggest Trump pile-on yet.

Ted Cruz, the Texas senator, and Rubio both went on the attack on Trump over several issues at the debate, including taxes, immigration, his history as a reality-television host, and his business career.

The repeated clashing came as both Cruz and Rubio are staring far up at Trump in the race for the Republican nomination. Trump is the clear frontrunner in the race for the Republican presidential nomination, having won the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries and Tuesday’s Nevada caucuses. Rubio and Cruz have been fighting to take him down and establish themselves as the clear alternative.

Early in the debate, Cruz filleted Trump with a quip about his reality-television career.

“In 2013, when I was leading the fight against the ‘Gang of Eight’ amnesty bill, where was Donald?” Cruz asked, referring to a Senate immigration bill co-sponsored by Rubio and seven other senators. “He was firing Dennis Rodman on ‘Celebrity Apprentice.'”

Cruz also accused Trump of funding the Gang of Eight bill. Cruz said Trump had donated more than $50,000 to three Democrats and two Republicans in the group.

“When you’re funding open-border politicians, you shouldn’t be surprised when they fight for open borders,” Cruz said.

Cruz also hit Trump over his alleged history of hiring immigrants living in the country unlawfully. Critics have long accused Trump of exploiting Polish immigrants who entered the US illegally to help build Trump Tower some years ago.

“Anyone who really cared about illegal immigration wouldn’t be hiring illegal immigrants,” Cruz said.

Later, Rubio piled on, attacking Trump over his inheritance and implying he wouldn’t have been a successful businessman without it.

Responding to a Trump attack about Rubio’s relationship with lobbyists, Rubio said: “Here’s a guy who inherited $200 million. If he hadn’t inherited $200 million, you know where Donald Trump would be? He would be selling watches in Manhattan.”

Rubio also attacked Trump over a lack of knowledge about healthcare policy. Rubio said Trump’s understanding of healthcare was only based around eliminating the artificial “lines” between states.

“You many not be aware of this, Donald, because you don’t follow this stuff very closely,” Rubio said.

“What is your plan? What is your plan on healthcare. … Your only thing is to get rid of the lines around the state,” Rubio continued.

For his part, Trump shot back at both. He taunted Rubio for infamously repeating the same talking points during a recent debate. Rubio was mercilessly mocked by the media and his rivals for the repetition.

“I watched him melt down two weeks ago with Chris Christie,” Trump told Rubio.

After Trump went on to again tout his plan to get rid of the “lines” between states, Rubio accused Trump of his own mindless repetition.

“Now he’s repeating himself,” Rubio said.

“I don’t repeat myself. I don’t repeat myself,” Trump said, talking through Rubio’s applause.

After Trump fought back, Rubio said, “I saw you repeat yourself five times five seconds ago.”

And the candidates also tangled over tax returns, an issue on which Trump has been targeted by former Republican nominee Mitt Romney and others over the past two days. Romney insinuated Wednesday that there could be a “bombshell” in Trump’s returns and urged all the candidates to release their tax returns.

In response to a debate question about why he hasn’t released his tax returns from previous years, Trump said it’s because he’s being audited.

“As soon as the audit is done, I love it,” Trump said.

Rubio said he expected his campaign would release his most recent return on Friday or Saturday. He implicitly criticised Trump for his audit.

“Luckily, I’m not being audited this year,” Rubio said. “Or last year, for that matter.”

Cruz joined in on the assault. After he was asked about why he hasn’t released his tax returns from 2012 to 2014, he pivoted to attack Trump.

“I would note that … Donald says he’s being audited,” Cruz said. “I would think that would underscore the need to release those returns. If he has said something that was false and that an audit is going to find was fraudulent, the voters need to know.”

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