Republican rivals Rubio, Cruz go on attack against Donald Trump at GOP 2016 debate

Republican rivals Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz attacked front-runner Donald Trump over his position on illegal immigration during GOP 2016 debate.

By: Reuters | Houston | Published:February 26, 2016 8:24 am
As Republican presidential candidate, businessman Donald Trump, center, speaks, Republican presidential candidates, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, left, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., second from left, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, second from right and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, right, look on during a Republican presidential primary debate at The University of Houston, Thursday, Feb. 25, 2016, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip) As Republican presidential candidate, businessman Donald Trump, center, speaks, Republican presidential candidates, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, left, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., second from left, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, second from right and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, right, look on during a Republican presidential primary debate at The University of Houston, Thursday, Feb. 25, 2016, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Republican rivals Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz attacked front-runner Donald Trump over his position on illegal immigration on Thursday, using a debate to try to thwart Trump from making massive gains in the presidential race next week.

Rubio quickly accused Trump of switching positions on illegal immigration for political gain. The senator from Florida said that the New York billionaire talks tough on the issue now, but previously said 2012 Republican candidate Mitt Romney lost his race against President Barack Obama for saying illegal immigration could be solved by self-deportation.

“A lot of these positions that he’s taken now are new to him,” Rubio said during the debate in Houston.

Trump – who has won three out of four contests in the Republicans’ selection of a presidential nominee and may reap big gains when 11 states make their choices on Tuesday – scoffed at Rubio’s charge.

He said Romney lost in 2012 because he was a terrible candidate.

“Excuse me, he ran one terrible campaign,” Trump said.

Cruz, a senator from Texas who needs to win his home state when it votes on Tuesday, piled on Trump, saying he was relatively new to the issue and pointed to his past as a celebrity host of NBC’s reality TV show, “The Apprentice.”

“Where was Donald? He was firing Dennis Rodman on The Apprentice,” Cruz said, referring to the former pro basketball player.

Republican presidential candidate, businessman Donald Trump , left, speaks as Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas,  looks on during a Republican presidential primary debate at The University of Houston, Thursday, Feb. 25, 2016, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip) Republican presidential candidate, businessman Donald Trump , left, speaks as Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, looks on during a Republican presidential primary debate at The University of Houston, Thursday, Feb. 25, 2016, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Trump dismissed the criticism and insisted that he, as president, would force Mexico to pay for a 1,000-mile (1,610-km), $10 billion to $12 billion wall along the U.S.-Mexican border. Earlier in the day, former Mexican President Vicente Fox said that Mexico would not pay for it, using colorful language.

“I will, and the wall just got 10 feet taller,” Trump said in response to Fox’s comments.

At the CNN-hosted debate at the University of Houston, Trump’s rivals had one of their last, best chances to try to derail the blunt-spoken political outsider before Super Tuesday, when 11 states hold Republican nominating contests.

Whether they can pull it off is an open question.

Even so, while Trump has scored early victories and is well ahead in national opinion polls, he has some ways to go to clinch the party’s nomination, which is decided by the number of delegates sent to the July party convention following the state-by-state nominating contests.

So far Trump leads the race with 81 delegates, with Cruz and Rubio well behind at 17 apiece. To secure the nomination, a candidate needs 1,237 delegates.

Super Tuesday will be critical because there are nearly 600 delegates at stake in Republican races that day.