A day after his pounding by rival Marco Rubio in a Republican presidential debate, Donald Trump picked up the endorsement Friday of former opponent Chris Christie, who immediately joined him in fiercely attacking the Florida senator as unfit for the presidency.
"I can guarantee you that the one person that Hillary and Bill Clinton do not want to see on that stage come next September is Donald Trump," Christie, New Jersey's governor, said at a news conference with the New York billionaire in Fort Worth.
Christie is the first prominent figure in the Republican establishment to embrace the sometimes crude iconoclast businessman at a time when many in the party are struggling to reckon with the reality that Trump is its most likely White House nominee.
The surprise announcement of Christie's support served to fortify Trump's counterattack against Rubio, whose blistering assault on his business record dominated the debate Thursday in Houston and marked a major shift in strategy for the freshman senator.
In Fort Worth, Christie argued that Rubio represents the Washington establishment that Trump would take on as president. Speaking to a crowd of thousands at a Trump rally, Christie reprised the withering attacks he used to damage Rubio in a debate before the New Hampshire primary.
"President of the United States is not a no-show job like you treated the United State Senate," Christie said.
The volleys between Rubio and Trump intensified on Friday. After months of declining to attack Trump, Rubio suddenly adopted the reality television star's tactic of hurling personal insults with abandon.
Rubio told supporters at a morning rally in Dallas that Trump had a meltdown backstage during a break in the debate and got extra makeup to cover his sweat mustache.
"He wanted a full-length mirror, maybe to make sure his pants weren't wet," Rubio said.
Later, in Oklahoma City, Rubio told reporters that Trump is "a con man who's taking advantage of people's fears and anxieties about the future."
"This is a guy who claims to stand for the working class when in fact his entire business career he's been sticking it to working-class Americans," he said.
"This is a guy who claims he's the strongest anti-immigration person in the race, and yet he uses illegal immigrants to build Trump Tower, and has imported foreign workers to take away jobs from Americans in my own home state."
Polls suggest Trump is the favorite to win most, if not all, of the 12 states that will hold Republican nominating contests Tuesday. After Trump's previous victories in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada, that would make it extremely hard for Rubio or Texas Sen. Ted Cruz to win enough delegates to stop Trump from capturing the nomination.
"I think it's time to coalesce around someone that can beat him and stop him, but also around someone that can unite the party and grow it," Rubio said.
In Fort Worth, Trump let loose on Rubio, calling him a desperate liar who lacks the demeanor to be president.
"He is a nervous Nellie," Trump told reporters, saying Rubio applies television makeup with a trowel. "I watch him backstage. He's a mess."
Trump ridiculed Rubio for his profuse sweating.
"Can you imagine Putin sitting there waiting for a meeting, and Rubio walks in, and he's totally drenched," Trump asked. "I don't know what it is, but I've never seen a human being sweat like this man sweats."
He paid tribute to Christie for his attack on Rubio in New Hampshire
, saying the senator had an "epic meltdown" that left him looking like he'd just emerged from a swimming pool. "Good going, Chris," Trump said.
Still, in the aftermath of Thursday's debate, Rubio and Cruz succeeded in keeping Trump on defense about his refusal to release his tax returns.
"Until my audit is finished, you're not going to see anything," Trump said, despite telling the media months ago that he would release his tax returns. "When it's finished, you're going to see it."
He also defended himself against Rubio's criticism over a fraud lawsuit involving the now-defunct Trump University, which offered seminars in hotels on how to get rich in real estate.
Trump described the case as "just people trying to get their money back."
"It's a peanut case," he said. "It's a very small case. I will end up winning."
Times staff writer Noah Bierman contributed to this report.