HOUSTON – The tough swings that Marco Rubio took at Donald Trump put him in better position for Super Tuesday, but they may not be enough for him to displace the frontrunner just yet.
Several Hispanic Republicans who have been turned off by the immigration rhetoric and positions of Trump and Ted Cruz have backed Rubio as the best chance of a GOP candidate to capture enough of the Latino vote to win in November, despite his own tough views on immigration.
Going into the CNN/Telemundo debate Thursday night, Cruz and Rubio were under pressure to more aggressively take on Trump or watch him walk away with the nomination on Super Tuesday.
“There are no silver or bronze medals in the race for the U.S. presidency,” said Ana Navarro, a Republican strategist and CNN political analyst. “He (Rubio) needs to get out of this space of being bogged down, of fighting Ted Cruz for number two. He needs to fight for number one. He finally took the gloves off and began doing it."
The debate got nasty early with immigration as the opening topic for the Telemundo/CNN debate Thursday night.
The candidates soon were talking over each other and trading barbs as they tried to one up each other on whose proposals were toughest on people who arrive or stay in the country illegally.
Rubio, in trying to show that immigration enforcement was new to Donald Trump, brought up Trump hiring immigrants who were not here legally.
“You are the only one on this stage who’s been fined for hiring people to work on your projects illegally,” Rubio said.
Trump retorted that he was the only one on stage that hired people at all.
But Rubio did not give in and urged viewers a couple of times to “Google it: Trump, Polish workers.”
Several Latino conservatives in Texas, many who previously supported Jeb Bush, switched their support to Rubio, hoping to give him a boost. They find his immigration proposals, which are built around a plan to first secure the border and deal with the 11 million people here without legal permission much later.
“Trump’s rhetoric needs to be toned down now. A general election with that tone, there is no way he can win and he would not get my vote,” said Cesar Martinez, a political consultant and founder of Mas Consulting in San Antonio.
“We need to look to the future of what this country needs,” Martinez said. “It’s 50 percent of the population growth.”
Rubio has suffered with the far right Republican base because he was a member of the Gang of Eight, eight senators who crafted a bipartisan immigration reform bill that included a path to citizenship for and was approved by the Senate in 2013. But after suffering political blowback, Rubio disowned the legislation, urged the House not to take up the bill and not to negotiate on the Senate's comprehensive immigration bill.
He has pledged to repeal every "unconstitutional" executive order or action taken by President Barack Obama, which would include the action Obama took to defer deportation for hundreds of thousands of immigrants who arrived in the country as young children and have grown up in the U.S., also known as Dreamers.
Rubio explained that he would not immediately end the executive action program known as DACA that allows immigrants allowed to stay in the country and work. But their protection from deportation and permission to work would be allowed to run out and would not be renewed and new applicants for the program would not be accepted.
Conservative Latinos who back Rubio as the more rational on immigration have been willing to accept that plan in hope that Rubio would broker an immigration solution before hundreds of thousands of young, largely Latino immigrants are thrown back into limbo and with the daily threat of deportation and being unable to work.
"We have to have a sitdown with conservative latino leadership, a sitdown with Rubio. We will have that conversation with him. We’re going to be forceful about it. We want to get this thing done," said Massey Villarreal, a businessman who has been rounding up Latino conservatives to back Rubio. Many were former supporters of Jeb Bush.
Villarreal and others suggested Rubio's immigration plan may not be their preferred approach, but they are willing to accept it to have a candidate they think can win in December.
"If we can’t hang our hat on the one we want, we can nudge one who has already tried (to pass immigration reform)," Villarreal said.
Rubio and Cruz did not discuss immigration when they were asked by Telemundo's Maria Celeste Arraras whether, as candidates who are Hispanic, they were missing an opportunity to expand the GOP to include Latinos.
Cruz complained that the media thinks a person is not Hispanic unless they are liberal. He went on to say that Hispanics care about values, faith, family and patriotism. He added he campaigns in Dallas and Houston the same way he would in the Rio Grande Valley – a region in far South Texas, which is heavily Latino.
Rubio urged moving past the idea that Latinos only care about immigration.
“I’m going to tell you that the most powerful sentiment in the Hispanic community, as it is in every immigrant community, is the burning desire to leave your children better off than yourself,” Rubio said.
Rubio had made a similar comment at a rally here Wednesday afternoon when a Latino supporter in the audience asked in Spanish how he planned to win the Latino vote. The voter told NBC News Latino he was not satisfied with the answer Rubio gave at the rally.
Next Tuesday, 12 states hold their primaries and the outcome could decide the nominee. Texas is the state with the largest Latino electorate and it’s a state where Republicans have done well among Latinos.
Cruz won about 35 percent of the Hispanic vote in Texas when he ran for senator. Polls done before the debate showed him with large leads over Rubio in his home state. At least one showed him beating Trump in Texas.
Ron Nehrig, California chairman of Ted Cruz’s campaign, attempted to keep expectations in check, however, noting Cruz faces a multi-candidate race versus a two-candidate race for Senate.
“I think Hispanic Republicans, they know Ted Cruz,” Nehrig said. He’s carried a significant share of the vote before “and I expect that to continue.”
Carlos Mercader, executive director of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, said Rubio’s best moments came when he called out Trump on the Polish workers and when he mentioned Trump University. The “university” was a program of real estate courses and workshops. Trump has been sued over the programs.
“In the long run it’s going to have an effect, but we’re not going to see that on Tuesday,” said Mercader, whose partnership backs Rubio. He went on to say that Rubio needs to win Virgina and Minnesota.
“Rubio did what he needed to do. He came out firing,' Mercader said. “But did it change the race, no it didn’t.”