HOUSTON (AP) — Brawling from the get-go, a fiery Marco Rubio went hard after Donald Trump in Thursday night's Republican debate, lacerating the front-runner's position on immigration, his privileged background, his speaking style and more.
Ted Cruz piled on, too, questioning the front-runner's conservative credentials, as the two senators tag-teamed Trump in a debate that reflected the increasing urgency of their effort to take down the billionaire businessman before he becomes unstoppable.
It was a rare night where the bombastic Trump often found himself on the defensive.
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.
The willingness of Rubio and Cruz to engage with the party front-runner stood in stark contrast to the kid-glove treatment both men had afforded him in previous debates.
Whether the shift in strategy came too late to alter the course of the nomination fight will be apparent soon.
The showdown came just days before Super Tuesday, which could all but lock up the nomination. 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 get along with nobody. ... You should be ashamed of yourself."
Rubio and Cruz said that Trump had to pay a $1 million fine for hiring immigrants in the country illegally.
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 that he's been audited by the IRS every year and that he can't release his returns while that's going on.
Rubio and Cruz promised to release more of theirs in the next two days.
The two other candidates in the debate, 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, Carson 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."
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 responded to Rubio and Cruz: "This guy's a choke artist and this guy's a liar. ... Other than that, I rest my case."
While Rubio was loaded for bear from the start, Cruz ramped up his criticism as the night wore on and argued that Trump wouldn't be an effective opponent against Hillary Clinton in the general election.
The finger-pointing extended to foreign affairs, with Cruz saying of Trump's plans to negotiate a solution to the Mideast conflict, "He thinks Palestinians are a real estate deal."
Making light of Cruz's repeated attempts to diminish him, Trump said: "Keep fighting, keep swinging, man, swing for the fences."
There was this back-andforth after one particularly heated exchange:
Cruz to Trump: "Donald, relax."
Trump to Cruz: "I'm relaxed. You're the basket case."
In another main takeaway, Cruz was adamant about the type of person he wants to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia.
"I give you my word every justice I nominate will vigorously defend the Bill of Rights for my children and yours."
Trump insisted that he would defend religious liberty and then quickly noted that Cruz had supported Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts when he was nominated in 2005.
Roberts helped uphold Obamacare, Trump said, and it "might as well be called Robertscare." Cruz "feels badly about it," Trump said.
Cruz said he would have nominated someone more conservative, then noted that Trump has routinely given money to Democrats who backed liberal justices. And, said Cruz, Trump would cut deals to get justices approved.
Trump fired back. Cruz stands on the Senate floor and engages in "talk and talk and talk." Nothing gets done. "We have to have somebody who has to make deals," he said.
The debate audience included former President George H.W. Bush, 91, and his wife, Barbara. They missed out on the chance to see their son Jeb take part. He dropped out of the race after a poor showing in the first states to vote.
"You haven't hired one person, you liar," Trump to Rubio.
"Look it up. 'Trump Polish workers,' you'll see a million dollars for hiring illegal workers on one of his projects," Rubio to Trump.
"You don't have the endorsement of one Republican senator. You should be ashamed of yourself," Trump to Cruz.
"Anyone who cared about illegal immigrants wouldn't be hiring illegal immigrants," Cruz to Trump.
This report includes material from the McClatchy and Tribune Washington Bureaus.