Marco Rubio waged an all-out verbal assault on Donald Trump Friday morning as his allies prepared to spend millions on new attack ads in key states, promising an aggressive and well-funded takedown effort the morning after the Republican front-runner was knocked on his heels on the debate stage.
Rubio, the leading aggressor during the debate, picked up where he left off Friday morning. In several television interviews, he questioned Trump's business background, his ability to lead the nation, and repeatedly called the billionaire businessman a "con artist" who has spent decades "sticking it to the little guy."
"We are not going to turn over the conservative movement to a con artist who is telling people one thing but has spent 40 years sticking it to working Americans and now claims to be their champion," Rubio told NBC's "Today" show.
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He also accused Trump of being worth far less than he has claimed, and pressed him to release his tax returns.
"The reason Donald won't release his taxes is because he hasn't made as nearly as much money as he claims he does," Rubio said. "He's not as rich as he claims to be. Everybody in finance knows that and his taxes would expose that."
Trump fired back on Friday, saying that Rubio looked like "a little boy on stage." He also misspelled "lightweight" and "choker" while leveling attacks against Rubio on Twitter.
"Lying Ted Cruz and lightweight chocker Marco Rubio teamed up last night in a last ditch effort to stop our great movement. They failed!" Trump wrote, before deleting and reposting tweets without the errors.
Lying Ted Cruz and leightweight chocker Marco Rubio teamed up last night in a last ditch effort to stop our great movement. They failed!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 26, 2016
Leightweight chocker Marco Rubio looks like a little boy on stage. Not presidential material!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 26, 2016
At at rally in Dallas, Rubio also ridiculed Trump over the tweets and joked that the billionaire businessman may have "wet his pants" over his debate performance backstage during a break.
"He wanted a full length mirror -- maybe to make sure his pants were't wet. I don't know," Rubio said.
The comments come as the GOP presidential candidates barreled into the final stretch to Super Tuesday following a name-calling, insult-trading, finger-pointing final debate in which Rubio and Ted Cruz engaged in a tag-team attack intended to slow Trump's momentum before it's too late.
"I've dealt with tougher," Trump sniffed after taking incoming for two-plus hours Thursday night. He said he knew the attacks were coming because "they're desperate. They're losing by massive amounts."
Later Friday, Trump announced New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's endorsement at a rally in Fort Worth. The endorsement is a blow to Trump's Republican competitors, not least Rubio, who had been courting the tough-talking governor since he dropped out of the race.
"Desperate people do desperate things," Christie said of Rubio's attacks while standing at Trump's side. "The idea that Marco Rubio can get inside Donald Trump's head is an interesting proposition."
Trump continued his attack on Rubio at the rally, mocking the senator's propensity for sweating during debates. "It's Rubio!" he exclaimed while spilling water from a bottle and pretending to faint.
He called Rubio a "low life" and said he can't imagine Rubio standing up to Russia's Vladimir Putin.
Eleven states vote in Tuesday's mega-round of voting, with 595 delegates at stake. Trump, with three straight victories behind him, has the momentum, and his rivals know they have to change that dynamic to have any hope of derailing his steamroll toward the nomination.
As Trump's rivals ratcheted up their criticism, a pro-Rubio super PAC also announced plans to start running new Trump attack ads in key states Friday morning.
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One of the ads charges that Trump "knows nothing about foreign policy." Another targets his business background, highlights the businessman's use of "sleazy bankruptcy laws to avoid paying workers" and highlights his recent comment that he loves "the poorly educated."
The ads are part of a "significant part of a multi-state, multi-million dollar buy," said the pro-Rubio group's spokesman, Jeff Sadosky.
It was far from clear, though, that the new effort will solve Trump's rivals' basic conundrum — each struggling to emerge as the clear alternative to the front-runner as non-Trump voters continue to splinter their support among the alternatives.
On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton claimed new momentum on Friday on the eve of a South Carolina Democratic primary that she's expected to win handily.
"I think it does take me a little bit longer to get into the rhythm of campaigning," she said on MSNBC's "Morning Joe." ''We hit our stride in Nevada. Our message of breaking all barriers is really beginning to take hold. I really felt we were on an upward trajectory."
From Houston, the GOP candidates spread out in the hunt for Super Tuesday votes, with Cruz headed for Tennessee and Virginia on Friday. Both Trump and Rubio are signaling they're unwilling to cede Texas, the crown jewel of Super Tuesday, to the home state senator, Cruz. Each scheduled campaign events in Texas before heading to Oklahoma City.
Up until Thursday, Rubio and Cruz had shown little willingness to take on Trump when the national spotlight shines the brightest. That all changed in Houston.
Rubio was the principal aggressor, spitting out a steady stream of criticism on everything from Trump's position on immigration to his privileged background, his speaking style and more. Cruz was happy to pile on, too, questioning the front-runner's conservative credentials, foreign policy savvy and electability.
In one testy moment, Rubio speculated that if Trump "hadn't inherited $200 million, you know where Donald Trump would be right now? Selling watches in Manhattan."
Not long after that, he took on Trump's declaration that he'd build a wall on the Mexican border, declaring: "If he builds a wall the way he built Trump Tower he'll be using illegal immigrant labor to do it."
Joining in, Cruz criticized Trump for suggesting he alone had "discovered the issue of illegal immigration."
Both said Trump had had to pay a $1 million fine for illegal immigration hiring.
It was a rare night where the bombastic Trump, standing between the two senators, found himself on the defensive.
He was hardly silent, responding to both Rubio and Cruz: "This guy's a choke artist and this guy's a liar. ... Other than that I rest my case."