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Hours after mounting the fiercest assault of his campaign against Donald Trump in Thursday's debate, Marco Rubio established a new line of attack against the Republican front-runner, branding him a 'con artist” and hurling insult after insult at him during a Friday rally in Dallas.
Rubio mocked Trump's misspelled tweets. He jabbed at Trump's age. And he portrayed Trump as a scared and phony politician.
On social media, Trump launched his own offensive, labeling Rubio 'Mr. Meltdown” and pointing to his spotty Senate attendance record. Trump also picked up his first endorsement from a prominent establishment Republican - former rival Chris Christie, who quickly went on the attack against Rubio, too.
The dramatic escalation in hostility between Trump and Rubio sets the stage for a brutal 2 1/2-week stretch that may determine whether Trump effectively clinches the Republican nomination by mid-March or whether the race will drag on, possibly all the way to the GOP convention in July.
A third candidate, Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas, who won the Iowa GOP caucuses, embarked on an ambitious campaign schedule as he battled with Rubio to be seen as the chief alternative to Trump.
In essence, Rubio is trying to beat Trump at his own game, lobbing memorable one-liners designed to attract widespread attention. He is also going after Trump's business background, a cornerstone of his pitch.
In Dallas, Rubio gleefully pulled out his smartphone and read aloud some of Trump's misspelled attack tweets. He said he could draw only two conclusions.
'Number one: That's how they spell those words at the Wharton School of Business, where he went. Or number two, just like Trump Tower, he must have hired a foreign worker to do his own tweets,” quipped Rubio.
Rubio, 44, also highlighted the age gap between him and Trump, 69. 'He would be the oldest president ever elected. And it's like an eight-year term, so you start to worry,” Rubio said.
The Florida senator said Trump requested a full-length mirror during a break in the debate, 'maybe to make sure his pants weren't wet.” And he questioned Trump's toughness by charging that he was 'the first guy that begged for Secret Service protection.”
In Thursday's debate, Rubio swung hard at Trump from the opening moments. He accused the billionaire real estate developer of hiring foreign labor over Americans and offering few specifics on health care policy.
He also took personal shots at Trump, memorably charging that Trump would be 'selling watches in Manhattan” if he had not received an inheritance.
For Rubio, it marked a sharp departure from months of mostly sidestepping Trump and expressing distaste for personal attacks.
It also reflected the urgency of his task.
Trump is on a three-state winning streak and leads in the polls in a slate of 'Super Tuesday” states holding nominating contests next week. Rubio has yet to win a state, and aides are not predicting victory on Tuesday.
The one state where they are predicting a win is Rubio's home state of Florida on March 15. A Quinnipiac University poll showed Trump leading Rubio there by 16 points.
'Why would the people of Florida vote for Marco Rubio when he defrauded them by agreeing to represent them as their senator and then quit!” Trump tweeted Friday.
A 2015 study by Vocativ and Govtrack found Rubio to be the most absent member of the Senate.
Trump has taken the lead in the battle for delegates after decisive wins in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada. A good showing on Tuesday could put him in even stronger position, leading some detractors to fear that his opponents have waited too long to wage a full-fledged strike.
Christie, the New Jersey governor who dropped out Feb. 10 after badly losing in New Hampshire, said his former rival has the best chance to win in November.
'The question is, who is the best person to stop Hillary Clinton getting back into the White House?” he asked, appearing with Trump. 'This is the best person.
Two weeks after Super Tuesday, Florida and Ohio will be among the states voting. Unlike the earlier states, they will award delegates on a winner-take-all basis.
The prospect of quickly eating into Trump's lead that day has kept hope alive for Rubio backers. It has also raised the hopes of Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a centrist candidate who has shown no signs he plans to drop out before his home state votes.
The Bloomberg news service contributed to this report.