Republican debate: Marco Rubio finds his fire

Updated 1:43 PM EST, Fri February 26, 2016
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HOUSTON, TX - FEBRUARY 24:  Republican presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) speaks during a campaign rally at the Marriott South at Hobby Airport on February 24, 2016 in Houston, Texas. The process to select the next Democratic and Republican Presidential candidates continues.  (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
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Story highlights

Rubio, Trump clash over immigration, foreign policy

Cruz, Rubio say they'll soon release tax returns

Watch CNN’s Republican debate live on Thursday at 8:30 p.m. ET.

(CNN) —  

Marco Rubio was on fire Thursday night.

For months, the Florida senator resisted taking on Republican front-runner and expert attack dog Donald Trump, much to the chagrin of the GOP establishment. That reluctance evaporated during the final GOP presidential debate before Super Tuesday.

Standing to the right of Trump, Rubio delivered one blow after another at the billionaire businessman, attacking him on everything from immigration to foreign policy and health care to the businessman’s hiring practices. And to Trump’s left, Ted Cruz delighted in joining in the pile-on.

Everything changes March 1

In the middle of a debate filled with fireworks and filled with barely audible exchanges in which the three candidates furiously talked over one another, Trump pointed to the two men flanking him and lashed out: “This guy is a choke artist,” he said, turning to Rubio, “and this guy’s a liar,” he said of Cruz.

CNN Podcast: GOP Republican debate in Houston, hour 1

Watching it all from the audience was former President George H.W. Bush and his wife, Barbara, whose era of politics seems long gone in today’s Republican Party. Their attendance was all the more notable since this was the first GOP debate of the season in which their son, Jeb, didn’t appear after dropping out of the race.

CNN Podcast: GOP Republican debate in Houston, hour 2

Rubio’s change in tone came just five days ahead of a slew of March 1 primary contests, when hundreds of delegates will be up for grabs. The evening marked the strongest debate performance for the Florida senator, who immediately used a question about immigration to aim fire at Trump.

CNN’s Reality Check Team inspects the claims

“You’re the only person on this stage that’s ever been fined for hiring people to work on your project illegally,” Rubio told Trump.

Rubio and Trump spoke over each other as the senator accused the real estate mogul of hiring Polish workers. Trump dismissed the episode as something that happened decades ago.

“I guess there’s a statute of limitations on lies,” Rubio retorted.