Photo by Gary Coronado/EPA
Questionable tax returns. Hiring illegal immigrants. A lawsuit over a fake university. These were just some of the attacks that were hurled at Donald Trump during the Republican debate last night, which at times felt more like a high school wrestling match than an adult conversation.For months, the Republican candidates have avoided directly taking on Trump for fear of losing an eye. But that strategy ended last night, as it finally seemed to dawn on his two main rivals, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, that if they were going to try to stop Trump, they had better do it now. The two senators tag-teamed Trump on everything from his business success to support for Israel, in an effort to unseat the indisputable frontrunner just days before eleven major states vote in their primary elections on March 1.
When the discussion turned toward Trump's plans for healthcare, the businessman and reality television star offered his usual confident, yet vague response: "The nice part of the plan -— you'll have many different plans," Trump stuttered, before reiterating for good measure that, "We're going to have many different plans."Rubio wasted no time to jump on Trump for repeating himself, which the Florida senator himself had been attacked for in the previous debate. The line received some of the biggest applause from the crowd of the night.Related: America's Election 2016: South Carolina's Black VoteCruz then took his swipe at Trump by hammering him for a lawsuit involving one of Trump's many ventures, Trump University. The school was a series of non-accredited real estate seminars that is currently being sued by students who say they were misled by promises Trump University made to them."It's a fraud case. His lawyers have scheduled a trial for July," Cruz sneered. "If you want to think about if this man is the nominee, having the Republican nominee on the stand in court being cross-examined about whether he committed fraud — you don't think the mainstream media will go crazy on that?"Cruz also hit Trump with one of his favorite lines of attacks — Trump's conservative credentials."How do we nominate a candidate who has said Hillary Clinton was the best secretary of state of modern times?" Cruz questioned, "[A candidate] who agreed with her on foreign policy, who agrees with Bernie Sanders on health care, who agreed with Barack Obama on the Wall Street bailout?"
Trump also faced questions about his tax returns and why he was unwillinging to release them to the public. He insisted it was because he is currently being audited — which he said happens every year — but didn't give a reason why. Then, in a post-debate appearance on CNN, Trump said the IRS was targeting him because he was "a strong Christian."Trump echoed some of the policies Cruz critiqued Thursday night, which made him sound at times more in line with the Democrats than that of an arch-conservative. He praised Planned Parenthood for the second debate in a row, saying that the organization greatly helps "millions of women." Trump also caught heat for having the gall to say that he would be a neutral negotiator in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.The squabbling between Trump, Rubio, and Cruz got so out of hand at one point that CNN's moderator Wolf Blitzer completely lost control of the stage. Trump, briefly, had become the moderator. He told Cruz to "go ahead" during one particularly intense exchange of interruptions, to which Cruz responded "Donald, you can get back on your meds now."Off to the sides of the screaming match stood the other two men who are still running for president; Ben Carson and John Kasich. They were ignored for long stretches of the debate, making it even more clear that as the leading candidates have argued, this is becoming a three-man race. At one point Carson even said, "Can somebody attack me, please?" in an attempt to just remind everyone he was still there.
Related: Campaigns Vs. Super PACs: Spot the DifferenceThis was after Carson offered his criteria for picking a Supreme Court justice: "The fruit salad of their life is what I will look at."Rubio and Cruz's joint effort to stop the seemingly unstoppable force that is Donald Trump clearly got under the frontrunner's skin. Trump, for his part, did not just sit back and take the assault. He called Cruz a "basket case" and attacked him for having no friends in the Senate. He also went after Rubio for not having any business experience and said that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who dropped out of the race earlier this month, caused Rubio to "melt down" in the last debate, calling it "one of the saddest things I've ever seen."But aside from a boost for CNN's ratings, it's unclear if any of this matters. If this election has shown us anything so far, it's that attacking Trump with anything other than Napalm doesn't seem to do much damage to him in the polls. He is currently dominating in most of the southern states that are about to hold primaries next week, according to a recent Bloomberg poll. And Trump even leads in Florida, which is Rubio's home state, and will be crucial to winning the nomination as the largest state to award its delegates on a winner-take-all basis. The only place Trump is trailing is Cruz's home state of Texas — but only slightly.Rubio doesn't appear to be backing down from his newfound feistiness. He again attacked Trump this morning on NBC's Today show. "We're on the verge of having someone take over the conservative movement and the Republican Party who is a con artist," he said. It remains to be seen though, if anyone can out-con Trump.Follow Olivia Becker on Twitter: @obecker928