Marco Rubio dared Ted Cruz to speak Spanish -- and he did.
The sixth Republican debate Saturday night turned into a sparring match between presidential candidates Cruz and Rubio -- and it quickly turned into a test of who was the true Latino candidate.
Cruz was blasting Rubio over an appearance on Univision, where the Florida senator spoke about immigration.
"Marco went on Univision, in Spanish, and said he would not rescind President Obama’s illegal executive amnesty on his first day in office,” Cruz said. "I have promised to rescind very illegal executive action including that one."
Rubio fired back, sarcastically: "I don't know how he knows what I said on Univision — he doesn't speak Spanish."
The audience erupted in oohs.
But the Texas senator, probably for one of the first times in his campaign, suddenly started speaking Spanish -- a broken and halting Spanish, but Spanish nonetheless.
“Marco, if you want, say it right now, say it now, in Spanish,” he stammered back in Spanish.
The Latino vote has become increasingly more important -- particularly in the battleground state of Nevada -- and both Cruz and Rubio have both been criticized for not being "Hispanic enough" because of their hardline stances on immigration. Both, it seemed, sought to dispel those myths Saturday night.
Rubio, who entered the debate under immense pressure following his disappointing fifth-place finish in the New Hampshire primary and stumbled badly in a debate days before that vote, appeared more fluid in Saturday's contest, including during a robust defense of his proposed 25 percent corporate tax rate — which is not as much of a tax cut as many of his rivals are pitching. Rubio said his idea would leave enough revenue in the federal budget to triple the child tax credit for working families with children.
Just six contenders took the debate stage, far from the long line of candidates who participated in earlier GOP events.
The raucous debate began with a moment of silence to honor Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who died just hours before the candidates took the stage.
Scalia's death thrust the future of the high court into the center of a heated presidential campaign. In their debate Saturday night, the GOP candidates insisted that President Barack Obama step aside and let his successor nominate Scalia's replacement instead, a position the White House vigorously opposed.
Among the contenders, only Jeb Bush said Obama had "every right" to nominate a justice during his final year in office. The former Florida governor said the presidency must be a strong office — though he added that he didn't expect Obama to pick a candidate who could win consensus support.
The five other candidates on the stage urged the Republican-led Senate to block any attempts by the president to get his third nominee on the court.
"It's up to Mitch McConnell and everybody else to stop it," Trump said. "It's called delay, delay, delay."
Throughout the debate Trump had several exchanges with Bush and Cruz, highlighting the bad blood the billionaire businessman and his rivals as the race turns to South Carolina, a state known for rough-and-tumble politics, where the next Republican primary will take place in one week.
Trump, repeatedly interrupting his rivals, lashed out at Cruz after the Texas senator challenged his conservative credentials, calling him the "single-biggest liar" and a "nasty guy." The real estate mogul also accused Bush of lying about Trump's business record and said Bush's brother — former President George W. Bush — lied to the public about the Iraq war.
Bush, who has been among the most aggressive Republican candidates in taking on Trump, said that while he didn't mind the businessman criticizing him — "It's blood sport for him" — he was "sick and tired of him going after my family."
Trump was jeered lustily by the audience in Greenville, South Carolina, a state where the Bush family is popular with Republicans. George W. Bush plans to campaign with his brother in Charleston Monday, making his first public foray into the 2016 race.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich sought to inject the election's high stakes into the discussion in the midst of the fiery exchanges between his competitors.
"I think we're fixing to lose the election to Hillary Clinton if we don't stop this," Kasich said.
The governor's warnings did little to deter his feisty colleagues.
Yet the Republican race remains deeply uncertain, with party elites still hoping that one of the more mainstream candidates will rise up to challenge Trump and Cruz. Many GOP leaders believe both would be unelectable in November.
Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson is fighting to stay in the mix in South Carolina. He was overshadowed in the debate by his more aggressive rivals but lined up with most of the field in saying he agreed Republicans should not allow a Supreme Court justice to be appointed during Obama's final year in office.
Bush and Kasich both see an opening in South Carolina after Rubio's stumbles.
Kasich defended himself against attacks on his conservative credentials, particularly his decision to expand Medicaid in Ohio despite resistance from his GOP-led Legislature. Kasich argued that his decision was a good deal for the state in the long run.
"We want everyone to rise and we will make them personally responsible for the help they get," said Kasich, whose fledgling campaign gained new life after a second-place finish in the New Hampshire primary.
Based on reporting by the Associated Press.