With the race accelerating and the stakes rising, three Republicans rivals worked furiously in a raucous debate Thursday to stop front-runner Donald Trump’s march toward the nomination.
Trump found himself defending his business record and his conservative credentials on several fronts, coming under pressure from the debate moderators and his challengers to release an off-the-record conversation with The New York Times in which rivals question whether he softened his immigration stance.
But Trump, who routinely bashes the press on the campaign trail, said off-the-record conversations were “a very important thing . . . a very powerful thing.” He acknowledged that flexibility was important in deal-making but insisted he wasn’t “very flexible” on his plan to build a wall along the border with Mexico.
The debate came just hours after the Republican Party’s 2012 nominee joined a cast of GOP establishment figures in an effort to stop Trump. Sens. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio and Gov. John Kasich sought to continue Mitt Romney’s work, painting Trump as unfit for office.
Cruz and Rubio, in particular, aggressively sought to deflate Trump, fiercely attacking him as a false conservative, an ill-tempered bully and a flip-flopper on issues. Trump was having none of it, responding with his trademark bombast and insults – and at times reasoned arguments.
Fox News moderators challenged Trump on repeatedly reversing himself by featuring a video montage of his comments about whether he’d opposed or supported the invasion of Iraq and the war in Afghanistan.
Trump opened by seemingly seeking to be more restrained, even saying he’d take back his frequent criticism that Rubio was a “lightweight.”
But he dropped back into the fray as he sought to mock Rubio’s criticism of him – including the Florida senator’s line that Trump supposedly has small hands.
“He hit my hands. No one has ever hit my hands,” Trump said in mock dismay, holding up his hands for inspection. “Look, are they small hands?”
But as he said Rubio had suggested that if hands were small “something else must be small,” he added, “I guarantee you there is no problem,” as the audience groaned at the clearly anatomical reference.
By the next exchange, when Rubio charged that Trump’s father had left him a giant fortune, any pretense of restraint was abandoned: “This little guy has lied so much about my record,” Trump said of Rubio, who is shorter than he is.
But Trump kept his cool when questioned on changing stances by moderator Megyn Kelly, who had gotten under his skin in an August debate.
“Megyn, I have a strong core,” Trump said as she showed him taking various stances on issues. But he added, “you have to have a degree of flexibility.”
Cruz attempted to balance directing the debate toward substantive issues with bashing Trump.
“This is not about the insults back and forth between the candidates. . . . This is about the people at home who are struggling through seven years of Barack Obama,” Cruz said. “I don’t think the people of America are interested in a bunch of bickering schoolchildren.”
That said, Cruz quickly took a swipe at Trump, linking him to Democrats through campaign contributions.
“For 40 years, Donald has been part of the corruption you’re angry about,” Cruz said. “And you’re not going to stop the corruption in Washington by supporting someone who has supported liberal Democrats for four decades, from Jimmy Carter to John Kerry to Hillary Clinton.”
Rubio, who had followed a strong debate performance with a widely mocked decision to disparage Trump with wisecracks about his hair and bodily functions, sought to change his style again. He said he’d criticized Trump only because for the past year Trump “has basically mocked everybody with personal attacks.”
“Let’s start talking again about the issues that matter to this country,” Rubio said. “I’m ready to do that starting right here, right now, tonight.”
But he said Trump was incapable of holding a real debate: “You ask about the economy and the first thing he does is launch an attack, because he doesn’t have answers.”
Rubio accused Trump of hiring workers from overseas, even as the real estate mogul struck a harsh tone on immigration, accusing Trump of conning the American public.
And he hammered Trump on lawsuits filed by students who said they’d been defrauded by his now-defunct Trump University.
The Ohio governor sought to present himself as still a factor in the campaign. With a winnowed Republican field – retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson wasn’t on the stage – Kasich got one of his earliest chances to date to weigh in.
Kasich insisted that he has a path to the GOP nomination.
“Guess what, it’s now March Madness and we’re heading up North to my turf,” he said. “Let me tell you this, I will win Ohio and we’re going to move all across the country. You know what people say to me all the time? `Why don’t they give you time on the debate stage?' Now all of a sudden I’m starting to get it. What I want the people to know is I know how to bring people together, Republicans and Democrats.”
Gentlemen, you’ve got to do better than this.
Moderator Chris Wallace
▪ Bernie Sanders campaigns in Lawrence: 2A
▪ Trump’s invisible campaign faces a test in Kansas: 4A
▪ Answers to your caucus questions: 4A
▪ Where to caucus on Saturday: 4A
▪ Rubio, Cruz campaigns plan events in Wichita: 4A