HOUSTON (CN) – Marco Rubio flustered frontrunner Donald Trump by calling him out on his history of hiring undocumented immigrants, while Ted Cruz disappointed his hometown with a lackluster performance in Houston Thursday night as a crowd demonstrated across the street.
Nearly half of the 1,237 delegates needed to win the Republican nomination will be up for grabs on Super Tuesday next week, with Republican voters going to the polls in 12 states.
Texas’ 155 delegates are the biggest prize, and before the Thursday debate at the University of Houston, pundits said Cruz had to turn in a high-quality performance to regain the momentum he’s lost since winning the Iowa caucuses.
Cruz and Rubio are essentially tied for second place in the delegate count behind Trump, who holds a commanding lead after three straight victories, in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada.
Dozens of Houston police and Harris County sheriff’s officers set up a perimeter around the campus as a rally broke out an hour before the debate.
With a bullhorn slung over her shoulder, Alma Cooper, 60, a longtime Houstonian and native Mexican said, “We’re trying to bring awareness to the people about what the Republicans are. And at this time the Republicans’ campaigns are just to see who hates immigrants more and who wants to make them suffer more.”
The large crowd chanted: “Stop the hate. Stop the fear. Immigrants are welcome here.”
Asked what she thought about Trump and his idea to deport all of the estimated 11 million paperless immigrants in the United States, then let the good ones back in, Cooper said, “He’s just a business showman. He knows how to get the people’s attention. I don’t think he has the knowledge and experience to lead the country.”
Trump stood by his statements on immigration during the debate and his insistence that he could make Mexico pay for a wall along the 1,989-mile U.S. border.
Telemundo moderator Maria Celeste Arrás told Trump that Mexico’s former president Vicente Fox recently said, “I’m not going to pay for that fucking wall.”
But Trump remained defiant. “The wall just got 10 feet taller,” Trump said.
“We’re going to make them pay for that wall,” Trump said. “It’s $10 billion to $12 billion if I do it. If these guys do it, will cost $200 billion,” he said, pointing at Cruz and Rubio.
Rubio came right back at the real-estate developer. “You’re the only person on this stage who has been fined for hiring illegal people to work on your jobs.”
Cruz backed Rubio up. “Marco is right. A federal court found Donald guilty of conspiring to hire people illegally and entered a $1 million judgment,” the Texas senator said.
Rubio on Thursday showed a knack for punchy on- liners that jarred Trump.
“If he builds the wall the way he built Trump Tower he’ll be using illegal immigrants to do it,” Rubio said. “Here’s a guy who inherited $200 million. If he hadn’t inherited $200 million you know where he’d be? Selling watches in Manhattan right now.”
The New York Times on Thursday reported that Trump has sought work visas for more than 500 foreign workers to do service jobs at his Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach since 2010, while hiring only 17 of the nearly 300 U.S. workers who applied for jobs there.
After a similar report from Reuters in July 2015, the head of a Palm Beach County job placement service told the Times, he told the Trump organization that he had “hundreds of qualified applicants.” Mar-a-Lago then sent a request for one job, which it filled, and that was it, according to the Times.
Arrás put Rubio on the spot by asking the son of Cuban immigrants why he said he would eliminate Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a program President Obama established that lets people brought to the United States without documents as children apply for two-year work permits.
“It’s not because we’re not compassionate to the plight of people who came here as young people. The problem is that it’s unconstitutional,” Rubio said. “We cannot violate the Constitution the way this president does on a regular basis.”
Trump seemed immune to fallout from his stance on immigration last week in Nevada, the first primary state with a large Latino population, where he won 46 percent of the Latino vote.
“I love Hispanics,” Trump told the crowd Thursday night. “They’re incredible people. They’re incredible workers and they know I’m going to bring jobs back from China. I’ve employed tens of thousands of Hispanics over the years.”
Cruz is a Harvard-trained lawyer and championship debater, but it was hard to tell from his performance Thursday.
Rubio scored points while Cruz’s litigator style made attention spans wander.
CNN’s Dana Bash asked the candidates about Apple’s stonewalling of the FBI’s request for a way to unlock the iPhone of terrorist Syed Rizwan Farook, who was shot by police after he and his wife killed 14 people in San Bernardino on Dec. 2.
Rubio said Apple has mischaracterized the FBI’s request as asking for a back door to all iPhones. He said Apple is only being asked to disable the phone’s self-destruct mode so the FBI can try to figure out how to download its data.
“Their brand is not superior to the security of the United States of America,” Rubio said, drawing cheers from the audience.
Apple has elevated its fight with the FBI into the philosophical realm, putting it in the unusual position of asserting that as a private company, it is more concerned about protecting the privacy of U.S. citizens than the FBI is.
When Bash asked Cruz about Apple’s fight with the FBI, he launched into an explanation that seemed to float over onlookers’ heads and didn’t register.
The debate devolved into Trump calling Rubio a “choke artist” and Cruz a “liar” and a “basket case,” and Cruz complaining to CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that he didn’t get a chance to respond to the name-calling.
“Can somebody please attack me?” neurosurgeon Ben Carson quipped, drawing laughter from the hundreds of reporters staring at their laptops and TV screens in “The Spin Room,” a University of Houston gymnasium a stone’s throw from the heavily guarded debate hall.
Carson, who has won just four delegates compared to Trump’s 50 and has no chance of winning, complained to the moderators that they weren’t letting him speak.
Trump bore in by reminding the crowd that Cruz’s campaign workers had lied to Iowans that Carson had dropped out of the race.
“I watched what this guy did to Ben Carson in Iowa and that was disgraceful,” Trump said.
Trump said Cruz’s campaign had also handed out forms with the words “voter violation” on them in another state to scare people into thinking they had to vote for Cruz.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich played up his record in his home state, where he said he inherited an $8 billion deficit.
“Through common-sense regulations and reasonable tax cuts, now we have a $200 billion surplus and our pensions are strong,” he said.
Kasich scored points with undocumented immigrants with a concrete plan that is missing from Cruz and Rubio’s platforms.
“I favor a guest worker program and for the 11 million here. I would make them pay fines and I would give them a path to legalization, but not a path to citizenship,” Kasich said.
Some members of the GOP establishment have asked Kasich to drop out of the race so he does not siphon support from Rubio, who is seen as the establishment candidate with the best chance of defeating Trump.
But Kasich has vowed to keep going. He said this week that if he drops out it would help Trump.
Not mentioned in the nearly three-hour debate were the minimum wage and fast-food labor unions, but that’s all Janice Talton, 47, wanted to talk about at the rally across the street.
Talton makes $8 an hour at Burger King and lives in southwest Houston in an efficiency apartment with her four sons and granddaughter. She said she had to drop out of culinary school because she couldn’t pay the rent.
“My thing is, if they give $15 to people who are trying to do good things and keep a roof over their head, keep food on the table, then this will be a better place and we could see our way out of the tunnel. Right now I’m just at the beginning of the tunnel,” she said.
Photo caption: Protestors calling for immigration and minimum wage reform outside the Republican presidential candidate debate in Houston.
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