Billionaire real estate mogul Donald Trump took center stage again at a crucial Republican debate in Texas on Thursday, with Florida Senator Marco Rubio and Texas Senator Ted Cruz looking to curb the electoral momentum of the front-runner.
Rubio was on the attack against Trump as the nationally televised debate began. Again and again, the Florida lawmaker brought up the businessman's history of hiring immigrants who are in the country illegally to work on his properties.
Joining in, Cruz criticized Trump for suggesting he alone had "discovered the issue of illegal immigration.''
Trump shot back, "I hired tens of thousands of people. You've hired nobody.''
The flamboyant Trump, who has never held elective office, has won three straight primary election contests in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada. This debate preceded next Tuesday's party primaries and caucuses in 12 states, the single biggest day so far in the months-long, state-by-state races to pick the Republican and Democratic party presidential candidates.
An online Bloomberg Politics poll released Thursday found Trump, a twice-divorced New Yorker, with 37 percent of the vote in seven Southern states, home to some of the nation's most conservative voters.
Both Rubio and Cruz sharpened their attacks on Trump in recent days, with Rubio contending that Trump's "Make America Great Again" campaign slogan is empty rhetoric without many specific policy proposals.
"The vast and overwhelming majority of Republicans do not want Donald Trump to be our nominee," Rubio said Wednesday, suggesting that Trump has won only because the Republican opposition to him has been splintered.
Two other candidates, Ohio Governor John Kasich and former neurosurgeon Ben Carson, remained the race and were on the debate stage, but it was the first candidate face-off without former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who dropped out after a disappointing fourth-place finish last weekend in South Carolina.
Cruz, a conservative agitator in Washington against Republican and Democratic leaders, on Wednesday attacked Rubio and Trump as "Washington dealmakers." He said Rubio had collaborated with Democrats on immigration policy changes that Congress ultimately abandoned, while Trump has made campaign donations to Democrats in past elections and at times supported their policies.
Cruz is looking to win his home state of Texas on Tuesday and do well in other nearby states in the southern part of the country. But surveys show Republicans favoring Trump in those states and pulling close to Cruz in Texas. Rubio also faces a key contest in the southeastern state of Florida, his home state, on March 15, the same day Kasich is on the ballot with the other candidates in Ohio, the Midwestern state he governs.
As he celebrated his victory this week in Nevada, Trump suggested to supporters he could take a commanding lead for the Republican nomination with more victories in March, when voters will pick hundreds of delegates to the party's national nominating convention in July.
"It's going to be an amazing two months," Trump said. "We might not even need two months, folks, to be honest."
Trump has predicted he will face off with former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the leading Democratic presidential contender, in November's national election to replace President Barack Obama, whose eight-year tenure in the White House ends in January.
Clinton has won two of the three Democratic state contests over her remaining rival, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist. Clinton, the country's top diplomat from 2009 to 2013, is favored in Saturday's primary election in the Atlantic coastal state of South Carolina, and the two are battling in 11 states on Tuesday.
Some material for this report came from AP.