Republican front-runner Donald Trump – who had come into Thursday with all the momentum in the GOP primary – was suddenly thrown on the defensive in the night’s debate, struggling to fend off attacks by rivals and hard questions from moderators.
At one point, the billionaire resorted to shouting insults, seemingly trying to drown out an attack by rival Sen. Marco Rubio with pure noise.
“You’ve defrauded the people of Florida, little Marco!” Trump repeated, after Rubio (Fla.) went on a riff about Trump’s involvement in the troubled “Trump University.” That was not a school, but rather a series of real-estate seminars, which later lawsuits alleged was a scheme to bilk students out their money.
Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.), who had teamed up with Rubio to criticize the front-runner all night, later interrupted to turn their argument itself into evidence against Trump.
“Let me just [ask] the voters at home: is this the debate you want playing out in the general election?” Trump said. “If we nominate Donald, we’re going to spend the fall and the summer with the Republican nominee facing a fraud trial,” Cruz said, referring to an ongoing suit which may come to trial this summer.
Trump interrupted again: “Oh, stop it. . . . It’s a minor civil case,”
Cruz spoke to him as he would speak to a child. “Donald, learn not to interrupt. It’s not complicated. Count to 10. Count to 10,” Cruz said.
On a night which veered into the ugly and vulgar – earlier, Trump had offered an un-requested assurance about the size of his own genitals – Trump was, at one point, moved to reassert a fact that had been blindingly obvious when the debate began.
“I won 10 states,” Trump said, mocking Cruz for having won primaries and caucuses in just four. “I am by far the leader!”
Trump – having defied nearly every other unwritten rule of presidential campaigns – spent part of Thursday evening defying perhaps the greatest of all: He gave an impassioned defense of flip-flopping.
“I’ve never seen a very successful person who wasn’t flexible. Who didn’t have a certain degree of flexibility. . . . You have to be flexible. Because you learn,” Trump said, after a video montage in which Fox moderators showed him changing his mind about the Iraq War, about whether to admit Syrian refugees, about whether President George W. Bush had lied to the American public. Trump, in essence, faced the kind of accusation that had burdened past nominees like Mitt Romney. And he said: why not? “You have to show a degree of flexibility. If you’re going to be one way, and you think it’s wrong, does that mean the rest of your life” you can’t change?
The crowd cheered.
Rubio sought to turn that into a mistake.
“There’s a difference between flexibility, and telling people whatever you need to get them to want you to do,” Rubio said, repeating an attack line he used several times during the night. “You were willing to say whatever you had to say in order to get them to give you their money. And we’re not going to do that with our country.”
Later in the debate, Trump and Cruz departed from substance so entirely that they –grown men, one a billionaire and one a senator – threw back and forth one-word insults like battling siblings.
“Breathe. Breathe,” Cruz said, who was mocking Trump for interrupting him.
“Lyin’ Ted,” Trump said.
“You can do it,” Cruz said, back on the breathing.
“When you’re done with the yoga, can I answer a question?” Rubio interrupted.
“I really hope that we don’t see yoga on this stage,” Cruz said.
“Well, he’s very flexible, so you never know,” Rubio said, meaning Trump.
During the debate, Trump reversed himself on a key part of his own immigration platform – calling for an increase in visas for highly skilled foreigners during Thursday night’s debate, even though his own campaign website still calls for the opposite.
“I’m changing. I’m changing. We need highly skilled people in this country,” Trump told Fox News moderator Megyn Kelly, after she pointed out that Trump’s official campaign policy was still – according to the website –that there should be fewer visas given to highly skilled foreigners. “We absolutely have to keep the brainpower in this country. I’m changing it, and I’m softening the position.”
Trump also, at a later point in the debate, defied another GOP orthodoxy: that Russian President Vladimir Putin was an impacable, wily, untrustworthy U.S. enemy. Instead, Trump – whom Putin had praised in the past – said that he thought he could get along with the Russian leader.
“Putin said very nice things about [me]. And I say, very nicely, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if we could get along with Russia?” Trump said.
After months of flailing and attacking one another, Cruz and Rubio seemed to advance a relatively coherent argument against Trump – arguing that, in private, he had hurt the very blue-collar workers he now wants to represent.
Rubio pressed him about the fact that Trump-branded clothing is often made overseas, and about the widespread hiring of foreign workers on visas at one of Trump’s properties in Palm Beach, Fla.
“You’re making your clothes overseas, and you’re hiring your workers overseas,” Rubio said at one point, referring to the widespread hiring of foreign workers on visas at one of Trump’s properties in Palm Beach, Fla.
To defend himself, Trump sought to explain the economics of owning a Palm Beach resort. “It has a very short season. It’s called ‘The Season,’” Trump said, saying that Americans were not interested in short-term work. “Other hotels do the exactly same thing.”
Cruz, for his part, pressed Trump about reports that he had given an off-the-record interview to the New York Times editorial board in which Trump supposedly signalled flexibility on his hard-line positions on immigration.
Cruz pressed Trump to tell the Times to release a record of the off-the-record interview.
Trump refused. Earlier in the evening, he had said his respect for the press was too great. “I have too much respect for that process to say, ‘Just release that,” Trump said.
“If, in fact you went to Manhattan and said, ‘I’m lying to the American people….’” Cruz said,.
“I’ve given my answer, Lyin’ Ted,” Trump said.
At times, prodded by the moderators, the debate turned for short periods to questions of policy. At one point, a moderator asked Trump about an interview with former National Security Agency and CIA director Michael Hayden, in which Hayden said the U.S. military might refuse orders that Trump has contemplated, including plans to kill the family members of Islamic terrorists.
“They won’t refuse. They’re not going to refuse me,” Trump said. “If I say do, they’re going to do it.”
Rubio returned to a line of attack that he hoped – in vain – would sway voters before Super Tuesday, saying that Trump was a phony savior. “He has spent a career convincing Americans that he’s something he’s not, in exchange for their money,” Rubio said. “Now he’s trying to do it in exchange for their country.”
At one point, Trump appeared to promise that he would move that manufacturing to U.S. factories. “I will do that,” he said.
“He’s not going to do it,” Rubio said.
That set off a round of cross-talk and insults, with Trump saying to Rubio, “Don’t worry about it, little Marco.”
Moderator Chris Wallace interrupted them, trying to bring order back to a debate that had already – even in its first half-hour – featured a joke about genitals, an insult about Trump Steaks, and candidates repeatedly interrupting one another. Even in this campaign, in which the insult has been the main currency of political discourse, this stood out as an ugly debate.
“You’ve got to do better than this,” Wallace said.
Wallace had one of most powerful moments of the early going, pressing Trump to explain a claim that he would save $300 billion from Medicare drug purchases, when the U.S. only spends $78 billion total on Medicare drug purchases. Trump seemed to dodge the question, despite Wallace’s repeated efforts to pin him down.
Earlier in the debate, Wallace asked Trump to respond to Mitt Romney — the 2012 Republican presidential nominee – calling him a “phony,” and challenging Trump to campaign without insults.
“Well, look, he was a failed candidate,” Trump said of Romney. “He failed miserably.”
That, it turned out, was the most high-minded portion of the early minutes of the debate. Within its first 10 minutes, Trump had made what may have been the first reference – although a slightly veiled one — by a presidential debater to his or her own genitals.
“He hit my hands. Nobody has ever hit my hands,” Trump said, referring to Rubio, who had indeed said that Trump’s hands were small in recent days, and intimated the same another part of Trump’s anatomy. Trump noted that: Rubio, he said, had implied “Something else must be small.”
Trump spoke to the national TV audience. “I guarantee you there’s no problem,” Trump said.
This debate was a particularly raucous one, with audiences booing and cheering the attacks between the candidate, and Trump and Rubio talking over each other.
Rubio, in a moment that was only slightly less unprecedented than Trump’s self-assessment, defending his strategy of personally attacking Trump. Effectively, he said Trump had started it.
“Donald Trump has basically mocked everybody with personal attacks,” Rubio said. “If there’s anyone who’s ever deserved to be attacked that way, it was Donald Trump.”
Thursday’s debate comes at a crucial point in this entirely unexpected GOP primary. The next states to vote will be Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana and Maine, all on Saturday. After that, the next primaries will be Tuesday, when Republicans vote in Hawaii, Michigan, Mississippi and Idaho.
Trump dominated the primaries of Super Tuesday this week, and now he has a significant lead over his top rival, Cruz, in the race for Republican convention delegates.
But in a divided field, Trump has still won less than half of all the delegates awarded so far. That leaves his opponents with a viable — but risky and destructive — strategy. The only way to stop Trump from winning the nomination may be to stop anyone from winning it: dividing up the delegates so that no one has a majority.
Then, the theory goes, the party would head into a chaotic convention — the first true “floor fight” for any party in decades — and hope that a candidate other than Trump would emerge.
Rubio and Cruz had given Trump a pass for months before turning on him at the last debate a week ago. A few days later, on Super Tuesday, Rubio said that those last-minute attacks had worked, and that they had cut into Trump’s leads in states such as Virginia.
The problem was that Trump still won Virginia and six other states.
Also onstage was Ohio Gov. John Kasich. As he did in the last debate, Kasich did not participate in the attacks on Trump. Instead, he seemed to be holding his own private event at the side of the stage, ignoring the fighting next to him and trying to speak directly to voters.
Now, however, Kasich is under increasing pressure to fight or flee the race.
His best hope for the nomination was that he could win in the Midwest and begin a last-minute comeback. But now, polls show him trailing badly in Michigan, where Trump is leading with Tuesday’s primary looming. One recent poll showed Kasich losing to Trump even in Ohio, which will hold its vital, winner-take-all primary March 15.
If Kasich wants to win those states, he may have to enter the fray against Trump.
If he doesn’t want to enter the fray, he may come under increasing pressure from other Republicans to drop out so that his voters might flow to another Trump challenger.
This will be the first GOP debate without Ben Carson, who said Wednesday that he did not see a “path forward” for his campaign. Carson — a Christian conservative who last year briefly challenged Trump for the lead in national GOP polls — has not yet formally suspended his campaign.
Carson’s departure may not change the dynamics of the GOP race much: He has won a total of eight delegates, far behind Trump’s 319. But it will change the Republican debates, where Carson had been the anti-Trump: a low-key, cheerful presence on a stage full of big, loud egos. He didn’t fit, and was often proud to point that out.