Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. speaks during a rally, Feb. 26, 2016, in Dallas, Texas. 
Photo by Brandon Wade/AP

Candidates hit trail after brawling, fiery debate

Updated

After last night’s insult-riddled and contentious debate, the claws are out in final hours before Super Tuesday’s 11 primaries, contests that decide more than 500 of the 1,237 delegates needed to snag the nomination.

The feisty Marco Rubio of Thursday’s GOP debate was up early, throwing grenades of opposition research at Donald Trump after weeks of focusing on his own message and attacking Ted Cruz. He’ll keep working to portray the Republican front-runner as someone who hurts working class Americans through things like the allegedly fraudulent Trump University and hiring of illegal immigrants.

RELATED: ‘Fruit salad’ and more memorable debate lines

He called Trump a “con artist” no less than five times on CBS’ “This Morning,” and told NBC News’ TODAY that the stakes were too high to not fight.

“We’re on the verge of having someone take over the conservative movement and the Republican Party who’s a con artist. He’s out there telling people that he’s fighting,” Rubio  said. “His target audience is working Americans who are really struggling over the years in this economy. But he has spent a career sticking it to working Americans.”

He kicked off his Dallas rally with an extended monologue mocking Trump. Later, he’ll head to Oklahoma City on Friday, working to keep capitalizing on the momentum he saw after a surprise second place finish in South Carolina. Current polling doesn’t project that Rubio will win any states on Super Tuesday, but he’ll need at the very least consistent second places to gather enough delegates to keep going, derail Cruz, and portray himself as the Trump alternative.

Seeking to regain his lost momentum, Cruz is likely to spend much of the weekend portraying Rubio as someone who can’t beat Trump, and Trump as someone who can’t beat Hillary Clinton. He’ll rally in Tennessee before heading to Virginia to speak at Regent University.

Both Rubio and Cruz struggled to deliver knock-out punches to Trump, and it was unlikely the boisterous businessman would  stay quiet after a night of being under attack. Indeed, Trump was up early firing off tweet after tweet — many of them misspelled — criticizing “leightweight” Rubio and “lying” Cruz. He later deleted and tweeted corrected versions.

Earlier this week, Trump hinted that he was just waiting to attack the Florida senator — almost daring him to get in the fight.

“I can’t hit him, he hasn’t hit me. No, no, he has not hit me. I’m treating him nicely,” Trump said. “When he hits me, oh is he going to be hit … Actually I can’t wait.”

As for Gov. John Kasich, he’s sure to try and capitalize on not being part of the blood bath see at the debate when he rallies in Tennessee tomorrow night.

RELATED: Cruz, Rubio lay into Trump in raucous debate

“I had the third most speaking time of the night, and you wouldn’t think that,” Kasich told NBC News in the spin room afterward. “I was able to get it by being constructive, not by being in a war.”

Dr. Ben Carson didn’t deflect last night’s feud the way Kasich did: It pointedly just left him behind.

“Would someone attack me?” Carson fruitlessly asked as sparring between the three front-runners went on at length. He was ignored.

While Carson got in a few seemingly rehearsed lines — referring to his surgeons’ ‘gifted hands’ — his most attention-grabbing moments appeared less scripted: At one point, he seemed to get lost in the debate and asked a moderator to repeat the question, and then there was his memorable mention of fruit salad. 

Ben Carson, Donald Trump, John Kasich, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz

Candidates hit trail after brawling, fiery debate

Updated