It was fitting that Thursday night’s Republican presidential debate opened with a harsh exchange over immigration. The debate, hosted by CNN and Telemundo, was the RNC’s only sanctioned debate to air on a Spanish-language network. Immigration is the issue that has defined Donald Trump’s candidacy and the issue that Trump’s two Latino rivals, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, have spent the most time tussling over as they rush to prove their restrictionist bona fides on the topic. The only clarity the various exchanges offered, however, was that Cruz and Rubio are starting to get desperate enough to start saying Trump’s name when they criticize the leading candidate for their party’s presidential nomination.
Right away Rubio set to challenge Trump on his marquee issue, highlighting Trump’s past support for legalization for undocumented immigrants. He also picked up where Ted Cruz had left off in a prior debate, highlighting the fact that in 2012, Trump criticized then–Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney for advocating “self-deportation” on the campaign trail. “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,” Rubio went on. Trump was the “only person on this stage” who’d been sued for failing to pay wages and benefits to 200 undocumented Polish workers.
The underlying sentiment was one that Republicans who are sore about Trump’s dominance have been grousing over for months: that Trump is disingenuous and self-serving, that Trump is unserious, and, worst of all for Republicans, that Trump isn’t a true conservative.
When Ted Cruz got in on it, instead of just forcing Rubio into a corner over his work on the Senate’s 2013 immigration reform bill, as has been Cruz’s favorite attack line, Cruz also attacked Donald Trump for playing boss on Celebrity Apprentice and for donating “over $50,000 to three Democrats and two Republicans” who made up the Gang of Eight—the silly moniker for the group that worked on the Senate immigration bill.
“If you want to know who will actually secure the borders and follow through,” Cruz went on, “you ought to ask who has a record before they were a candidate for president of fighting to secure the borders and stop amnesty.”
But Rubio was just getting started. He later went in on Trump for demanding that companies who move their production overseas face stiff tariffs when importing goods even as the clothes lines which bear his name are manufactured abroad. “You’re gonna be starting a trade war against your own ties and your own suits,” Rubio said. Rubio moved on to the lawsuits Trump has faced over defrauding students of Trump University, a program that offered real-estate seminars. “I’ve won most of the lawsuits,” was Trump’s feeble reply.
Rubio was in rare fighting form on Thursday night, except when the conversation came back around to his own positions on immigration. Telemundo moderator Maria Celeste Arraras asked Rubio to explain why, last April, he said that it wouldn’t be fair to cancel President Obama’s executive action allowing undocumented immigrants who’d come to the United States as children three years of protection from deportation, but last week, Rubio said he’d end the program on “day one” of a Rubio presidency.