Thursday night’s debate was the fieriest presidential debate in years. Sen. Rubio and Sen. Cruz tag-teamed Donald Trump for pretty much the entire night. According to the debate transcript, it didn’t take long for the fireworks to start. It started with a question on immigration. It started when Mr. Trump said “You haven’t hired one person, you liar.” Sen. Rubio didn’t waste time, firing back “He hired workers from Poland. And he had to pay a million dollars or so in a judgment from…”
It didn’t take long for the dispute to get under Trump’s skin, with Trump saying “Be quiet. Just be quiet. Let me talk. I’ve hired tens of thousands of people. He brings up something from 30 years ago, it worked out very well. Everybody was happy.”
After that, it was Sen. Cruz’s turn to beat up Mr. Trump. That exchange started with Trump saying “You get along with nobody. You don’t have one Republican — you don’t have one Republican senator, and you work with them every day of your life, although you skipped a lot of time. These are minor details. But you don’t have one Republican senator backing you; not one. You don’t have the endorsement of one Republican senator and you work with these people. You should be ashamed of yourself.” It ended with Sen. Cruz saying “You know, I actually think Donald is right. He is promising if he’s elected he will go and cut deals in Washington. And he’s right. He has supported — he has given hundreds of thousands of dollars to Democrats. Anyone who really cared about illegal immigration wouldn’t be hiring illegal immigrants. Anyone who really cared about illegal immigration wouldn’t be funding Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi; wouldn’t be funding the Gang of Eight. And, you know, he is right. When you stand up to Washington, when you honor the promise you made to the men and women who elected you and say enough with the corruption, enough with the cronyism, let’s actually stand for the working men and women of this country, Washington doesn’t like it. And Donald, if you want to be liked in Washington, that’s not a good attribute for a president.”
It wasn’t just Sen. Cruz and Sen. Rubio that made Trump look bad. Wolf Blitzer asked if Mr. Trump was willing to start a trade war if Mexico didn’t pay for the wall. Here’s Trump’s predictable answer:
Well, you know, I don’t mind trade wars when we’re losing $58 billion a year, you want to know the truth. We’re losing so much. (APPLAUSE) We’re losing so much with Mexico and China — with China, we’re losing $500 billion a year. And then people say, “don’t we want to trade?” I don’t mind trading, but I don’t want to lose $500 billion. I don’t want to lose $58 billion. Mexico just took Carrier Corporation, maker of air conditioners. They just took Ford. They’re building a $2.5 billion plant. They just took Nabisco out of Chicago.
It just wouldn’t be a GOP debate or a Trump rally without him whining about how China and Mexico are screwing the United States and they’re taking our jobs. Sen. Rubio settled that score quickly, saying this:
Yeah, a couple points. If he builds the wall the way he built Trump Towers, he’ll be using illegal immigrant labor to do it. The second… The second thing, about the trade war — I don’t understand, because your ties and the clothes you make is made in Mexico and in China. So you’re gonna be starting a trade war against your own ties and your own suits. Why don’t you make them in America?
It’s unlikely that Trump’s most ardent supporters will abandon him but that doesn’t mean this wasn’t a worthwhile exchange. Sen. Rubio showed that he was willing and capable of hitting Trump hard. This exchange stung Trump, too:
RUBIO: You lied about the Polish workers.
TRUMP: Yes, yes, yes. 38 years ago.
RUBIO: You lied to the students at Trump University.
ARRASAS: Let Senator Cruz jump in.
RUBIO: Oh, he lied 38 years ago. All right, I guess there’s a statute of limitation on lies.
Trump was clearly rattled most of the night. At times, he called people liars. At other times, he insisted that they didn’t know what they were talking about. Most of the time, he was making faces that seemed to say that he was disgusted that he had to be on the same stage with the other candidates. There were even a couple of times where he looked like a patient who hadn’t taken his medication.
Thursday night marked a turning point. Rubio and Cruz didn’t attack each other other than a couple of incidental love taps. Instead, they hit Trump hard with shots about Trump’s Trump University lawsuits, Trump’s IRS audits and Trump’s hiring of illegal aliens. That’s before exposing Trump as a lightweight on health care policy and as being a lukewarm friend of Israel.
It remains to be seen whether this will stop Trump’s winning streak. This is the debate strategy Rubio and Cruz should’ve adopted a month or more ago.