Trump, Cruz, and Rubio Continue to Exchange Attacks In Eleventh Republican Debate
With time running out, the top three candidates for the Republican nomination picked up right where they left off last week.
To a large degree, the eleventh Republican debate picked up where the tenth debate had left off, with Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz aggressively attacking Donald Trump on a policy and personal level while John Kasich attempted to float above it all and present himself as the only adult in the room:
Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, fighting for their political lives, relentlessly demeaned and baited Donald J. Trump at Thursday’s debate, all but pleading with Republicans to abandon a candidate with a long history of business failures, deep ties to the Democratic Party and a taste for personal insults.
Warning that Mr. Trump would lead the party to a historic defeat in November, Mr. Rubio and Mr. Cruz delivered their attacks with urgency, as if trying to awaken voters who had fallen under Mr. Trump’s spell. Mr. Rubio derided Mr. Trump as untrustworthy and uncivil, while Mr. Cruz bashed him for donating money to Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign and to other Democrats. Mr. Trump looked on with disgust, but as in their 10 previous debates, he seemed impervious and perhaps unstoppable.
At times, the face-off in Detroit also deteriorated into the kind of junior high school taunts that have startled many Republican elders but have done little to dent Mr. Trump’s broad appeal. As Mr. Trump and Mr. Rubio traded insults over their manhood, Mr. Trump recalled Mr. Rubio’s innuendo that Mr. Trump’s “small hands” correlated with another part of his anatomy.
Mr. Trump, who has boasted about his sexual exploits, insisted that nothing was small about him. “I guarantee you,” he continued with little subtlety, “there’s no problem. I guarantee you.”
The two senators repeatedly urged Republicans to align against Mr. Trump in nominating contests over the next two weeks, saying that Mr. Trump could sew up the nomination even though a majority of voters so far have cast ballots for other candidates.
“Two-thirds of the people who cast a vote in a Republican primary or caucus have voted against you,” Mr. Rubio told Mr. Trump. “The reason why is because we are not going to turn over the conservative movement or the party of Lincoln or Reagan, for example, to someone whose positions are not conservative.”
The pleas reflected not only Mr. Trump’s advantage in the race, but also the party’s growing disquiet about the implications of nominating him. The specter of Mr. Trump as the Republican standard-bearer has long troubled both establishment-aligned and conservative leaders. But his initial hesitation to condemn the Ku Klux Klan in an interview on Sunday, and his success in seven states on Super Tuesday, have set off a new wave of anxiety that Mr. Trump could tarnish the party this year and perhaps beyond.
Still, in a striking moment, all of Mr. Trump’s rivals on stage indicated that they would support him if he became the Republican nominee. The consensus was especially unusual in the case of Mr. Rubio, who has been caustically attacking Mr. Trump as a “con man.”
While Mr. Rubio savaged Mr. Trump repeatedly on Thursday, Mr. Cruz combined his jabs with high-minded appeals to conservatives. He emphasized his support for a “simple flat tax” and a strong national defense, trying to position himself ahead of Mr. Rubio as the more competitive candidate against Mr. Trump.
Mr. Cruz also appealed directly to Mr. Trump’s supporters by saying that their desire for a political outsider to lead the country was misplaced.
“For 40 years, Donald has been part of the corruption in Washington that you’re angry about,” Mr. 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.”
“Donald Trump in 2008 wrote four checks to elect Hillary Clinton as president,” Mr. Cruz added, turning to Mr. Trump to demand why he had done so.
“Actually, it was for business,” Mr. Trump said, before noting that he had also given to Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.
Mr. Trump found himself on the defensive throughout the night, challenged by his rivals and the Fox News moderators to explain his inconsistent stands in the past. He also had to defend himself against a movement begun earlier Thursday by Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican nominee, who shredded Mr. Trump as a “phony” and a “fraud” who must be blocked from the nomination.
Mr. Trump, offered the chance to respond to Mr. Romney with harshness or with substance, chose the former.
“He was a failed candidate,” Mr. Trump said. “He should have beaten President Obama very easy.”
Mr. Rubio, his voice ragged, appeared frustrated at times as he repeatedly sought to sow doubts about Mr. Trump. He has been trying for months to catch fire against Mr. Trump, whom he holds in low regard on policy matters, and now the Florida primary looms as make-or-break for Mr. Rubio’s candidacy.
“You have yet to answer a single serious question about any of this,” Mr. Rubio said, referring to Mr. Trump’s generalities on foreign affairs. As Mr. Trump responded by reiterating praise he had received from President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, Mr. Rubio threw his arms up and turned away in exasperation.
If Mr. Trump struggled to deflect the attacks on his character, business sense and political viability against Mrs. Clinton in the fall, he seized opportunities to reassure conservatives that he would be a forceful commander in chief. Questioned by the moderators about his past advocacy for torture and for killing the families of terrorists, Mr. Trump stood firm and argued that “we should go tougher than waterboarding.” Pressed about whether military officers would carry out such orders — killing terrorists’ family members would violate the Geneva Conventions — Mr. Trump offered a boast.
“If I say ‘do it,’ they’re going to do it,” he said.
At another point, in a rare concession from Mr. Trump, he acknowledged that he was “changing” one of his positions in the highly charged immigration debate and was now open to offering visas for highly skilled foreign workers. He also lamented that foreign citizens “go to the best colleges” in America and “as soon as they are finished, they get shoved out,” and said he was “softening the position because we have to have talented people in this country.”
While his shift could appeal to some business leaders and moderate voters he would need in a general election, his campaign also issued a statement after the debate saying he would “institute an absolute requirement to hire American workers first for every visa and immigration program. No exception.”
Mr. Trump’s shifting positions have been a target for months, but during this debate, his rivals received help from the Fox News debate moderators. They played a compilation of video clips in which he was depicted changing his mind on issues like the war in Iraq. Mr. Trump was then asked directly if he had “a core.”
“I have a very strong core, but I have never seen a successful person who wasn’t flexible,” Mr. Trump said.
More from The Washington Post:
DETROIT — The calamity brought upon the Republican Party by Donald Trump was laid bare Thursday by its two most recent presidential nominees, who delivered unprecedented denunciations of the candidate that set the stage for a raucous evening debate.
Mitt Romney awoke from his political hibernation to deliver a sweeping, point-by-point indictment of Trump — of his policy proposals, his business dealings, his erratic judgments, his moral character, and his insults to women, Latinos and the disabled. The former GOP nominee, who sought and accepted Trump’s endorsement in 2012, implored Republicans to now reject the billionaire he labeled “a phony” and “a fraud.”
Trump’s three rivals took up similar attacks later Thursday night at a Fox News Channel debate in Detroit in which the ferocious sparring and name-calling revolved almost entirely around the front-runner.
What started with Trump asserting that he was well endowed in a rejoinder to Rubio’s campaign-trail joke about his manhood devolved into an ugly affair, with the candidates yelling over each other, at times unintelligibly, as they sought to discredit one another.
Taken as a whole, the day only served to harden the divisions tearing the GOP apart and raise dire doubts about whether its factions could unite in the general election.
It began at sunrise in Palm Beach, Fla., where Trump phoned into network television shows to mock Romney as a failed politician. Then, in Salt Lake City, Romney gave his speech asserting that Trump was a danger to the nation and to democracy itself; in Washington, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) shared in the dismay; in Trenton, N.J., Gov. Chris Christie called a news conference to insist he was not a prisoner of Trump’s; and in Portland, Maine, Trump rallied fans by demeaning Romney with crude language.
The events culminated at nightfall in Detroit, where Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas and Ohio Gov. John Kasich faced Trump and tried desperately to score points against him.
The very first question was aimed at Trump, and for the next two hours the moderators and candidates quizzed, scrutinized and mocked the front-runner. He was on the defensive through much of the event, struggling to explain many of his policy ideas as well as defend his hiring of foreign workers and the manufacturing of Trump-branded clothing overseas.
“You’re making your clothes overseas, and you’re hiring your workers overseas,” Rubio said at one point, referring to the widespread use of foreign workers on visas at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago property in Palm Beach.
Trump acknowledged that he brings in foreign workers to do jobs on work visas at his club and, defending himself, said it is difficult to get American employees to work in service for the five-month period he called “the season.”
“We will bring them in and bring them out,” he said to boos.
Trump reversed himself on a key part of his immigration platform, calling for an increase in visas for highly skilled foreigners. “I’m changing,” he said. “We need highly skilled people in this country.”
Trump added, “With immigration — as with anything else — there always has to be some tug and pull and deal. . . . You have to be able to have some flexibility, some negotiation.”
The evening’s fireworks came when the candidates, exhausted after three months of breakneck campaigning, leveled caustic attacks at one another.
“This little guy has lied so much about my record,” Trump said of Rubio, whom he repeatedly called “Little Marco.”
One of the lowest points of the night came near the start, when Trump responded to a joke that Rubio had told days earlier about Trump having small hands. “You know what they say about men with small hands,” Rubio said, pausing to let the audience laugh. “You can’t trust ’em.”
“He hit my hands,” Trump said, showing his palms. “Nobody has ever hit my hands. Look at those hands. Are these small hands? And . . . if they’re small, something else must be small. I guarantee you there’s no problem.”
At times, the debate was so focused on the personal that Kasich thundered, “Let’s stop fighting!”
Cruz, too, sought to claim the moral high ground.
“I don’t think the people of America are interested in a bunch of bickering schoolchildren,” he said. “They are interested in solutions, not slogans. It’s easy to say ‘Make things better, make things great.’ You can even print it and put it on a baseball cap. But the question is, do you understand the principles that made America great in the first place?”
Largely on the sidelines during these exchanges was Ohio Governor John Kasich, who pins is remaining hopes in the case mainly on pulling off wins in his home state and, perhaps, in Michigan next Tuesday. For this reason alone, the Governor is getting some good reviews this morning for being the adult in the room among a group of children, but it’s unclear if that’s going to help him going forward. Current polling has Kasich in fourth place in Michigan, for example, and even trailing Trump in Ohio. Unless he’s able to turn that around, it’s hard to see how his campaign continues.
As for the rest of the candidates, it’s about what you’d expect. Instead of a high-minded debate about principles or a wide-ranging policy discussion, which seemingly would have been easier with only four candidates on the stage this time around, though, this eleventh engagement between the candidates quickly descended into the same personal attacks and childish behavior that we saw from the candidates last Thursday, and which continued right up until Super Tuesday. From the perspective of candidates like Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, handling the debate in this manner is perhaps understandable since both men are arguably fighting for their political life after Trump has rolled up wins in ten of the first fifteen 2016 contests. For both of them, blunting Trump’s momentum over the next week and a half as the race heads into Michigan, Ohio, and Florida, which could be effectively the final real battle of this campaign, is absolutely essential. Spurred no doubt by the blunt rhetoric of Mitt Romney’s speech earlier in the day, then, they continued to attack Trump as aggressively as possible. Unlike the last debate, though, Trump seemed better prepared for the attacks this time and pushed back with his own brand of vicious, crude, and rude, attacks, at one point taking the debate down a road that no Presidential debate had ever gone down, a comparison of, well, penis size.
Beyond that low point, it doesn’t seem as though there was much real substance from any of the candidates last night, which I suppose is no surprise. As I noted, Rubio and Cruz remain concerned primarily with diminishing Trump in the eyes of voters, and they’ve apparently decided that they way to do that is to attack him personally or on his past record, or to continue with the argument that various candidates have been making since Trump got into the race that he was not a “true conservative.” The problem with that line of attack, of course, is that it clearly hasn’t worked up until now, and there’s little evidence that it is going to work now. For example, Senator Rubio spent much of the time between the last debate and Super Tuesday attacking Trump on every conceivable level, much to the delight of the crowds that came to his rallies. Cruz did much the same thing, although his attacks focused more on ideology than personality. By the time the results from Super Tuesday were in, it was clear that neither strategy had worked in either blunting Trump’s momentum or propelling the fortunes of the respective attackers. The only possible exception to this observation comes from Virginia, where Marco Rubio did better than expected thanks to voters in Northern Virginia. The fact that Rubio and Cruz are continuing with the same strategy as last week, though, suggests that both campaigns have reached the point where they’re running out of ideas about how to stop Trump. Of course, the fact that both candidates said last night that they would support Trump if he were the nominee tends to undercut the urgency of their claims that he is unfit to be the Republican nominee to begin with.
In the end, I tend to agree with Josh Marshall and others who are positing that the attacks at the debate, along with the attacks from Romney earlier in the day, are unlikely to hurt Trump either in the polls or at the polling place, and that they might actually end up helping him. From the beginning, Trump has reveled in the fact that the ‘establishment,’ whether that means the powers that be inside the Republican Party, the donor class, or the conservative media class, have been against him and that he has continued to outsmart them. Each time one of these attacks has occurred, Trump has only done better in the polls, and that has only helped him as voters have actually voted. There’s no reason to believe that this won’t be the outcome this time around, especially in the upcoming contests that will go a long way toward deciding whether Trump continues what seems like a largely unimpeded march toward the Republican nomination or whether the long-shot effort for a contested convention that Mitt Romney outlined yesterday has even a slight chance for success.