DETROIT, March 4 (UPI) — It did not take long for the Republican candidates to devolve into a shouting match and talk of Donald Trump’s manhood during their debate in Detroit Thursday night.
One of the first questions from the Fox News moderators went to Sen. Marco Rubio over his harsh insults directed at Trump leading up to Super Tuesday.
“Donald Trump has basically mocked everybody with personal attacks,” Rubio said, rattling off a list of groups who Trump has targeted, including women, the disabled and minorities. “If there’s anyone who’s ever deserved to be attacked that way, it’s Donald Trump.”
While Rubio spoke, Trump held up his hands, referencing Rubio’s taunt that they were small. Asked to respond, Trump called out the “small hands” remark — and its implication.
“He hit my hands,” Trump said. “I’ve never heard of this. He referred to my hands [meaning] if they’re small something else has to be small. I guarantee you there’s no problem. I guarantee it.”
From there, the event quickly slipped into a three-way shouting match until the Fox moderators regained control.
At one point, Fox anchor Chris Wallace admonished the candidates, saying they “have got to do better than this.”
When they did finally listen, Wallace went after Trump on statements he has made about reducing the federal deficit. Wallace pointed out Trump has said he will eliminate the federal deficit, which stood last year at $557 billion, by ending the federal Department of Education, the Environmental Protection Agency and allowing the federal government to buy drugs for Medicaid through a competitive bidding process. The total savings under Trump’s plan, Wallace pointed out, would only save about half of one year’s deficit spending.
Trump disagreed, saying he would save more by opening up other federal programs to competitive bidding to help make up the difference.
A recurring theme through the debate saw Rubio and Sen. Ted Cruz needling Trump on his changing stances on issues. Trump repeatedly called on his experience as a businessman who understands the need for give-and-take in negotiations.
“I’ve never seen a successful person who is not flexible, who doesn’t have a certain degree of flexibility,” Trump said.
Rubio shot back: “There is a difference between flexibility and telling people anything to get them to do what you want them to do. And that is what Donald has done in his entire career.”
Cruz hammered Trump on his donations toward Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign, and repeated his call for Trump to allow The New York Times to release an off-the-record conversation on the topic of illegal immigration. Cruz and Rubio have both hinted the conversation includes Trump softening his position against illegal immigrants.
“Sometimes there needs to be some flexibility, some negotiation,” Trump said, when pressed on the Times tapes. “Now sometimes, you ask for more than you want and you negotiate down to the point.”
Asked point blank how flexible he is on immigration he said, “not very flexible.”
He called on all candidates to keep their promise to journalists when both sides agree a conversation will be kept confidential and pointed out all the candidates have gone off the record with journalists to have a more frank conversation without the threat it will harm their campaigns.
Trump also faced stiff criticism from Rubio, and questions from moderator Megyn Kelly, over Trump University, the entrepreneurial school he founded that is now the subject of a class-action lawsuit from students who say they were bilked out of tuition. Trump defended the for-profit endeavor and promised he will prevail in the lawsuit.
Cruz and Rubio avoided making attacks against one another during the event, with both men training their fire on Trump instead.
Cruz hit the front-runner on judicial nominees, returning to the Clinton donation issue, which Trump has said he did because of his business interests, not his political beliefs.
“I will never compromise away your religious liberty,” Cruz said, referencing his own promise to nominate pro-life judges.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich largely avoided entering the fray during the raucous exchanges between the other three men on stage. He offered a strong answer on foreign policy with a 60 second “trip around the world” where he called on the United States to do more to fend off Russian aggression in eastern Europe, bring together moderate Arab states to fight the Islamic State and confront China over its muscle-flexing in the South China Sea.
Kasich was also challenged by the moderators over an answer he gave in a previous debate, where he said a baker or photographer should not have the right to turn away gay couples seeking to have them work their weddings.
This time, Kasich said he would support a business owner’s religious beliefs. He said gay couples should “come together” with religious people and “find another photographer, don’t sue them in court.”
The debate comes at a pivotal time in the race. Trump’s insurgent campaign has roused GOP voters and he is the clear front-runner ahead of Michigan’s primary on Tuesday.
Cruz is fresh off a Super Tuesday performance that saw him capture his home state — a campaign-saving victory that, combined with wins in Oklahoma and Alaska, put him in second place in the delegate count, though far behind Trump.
Rubio and Kasich enter the debate in need of a breakout performance for their respective campaigns ahead of do-or-die primaries in their home states on March 15.
The debate — the 11th of the Republican campaign thus far — was also a sequel of a feud that dominated the campaign previously, when Trump picked a fight with Kelly, the Fox host. In one of the first debates of the campaign, Kelly drilled Trump on past comments calling women “fat pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animals.”
Trump bristled during the debate and unleashed a tirade afterward, suggesting Kelly’s pointed questions were because she had “blood coming out of her wherever,” a comment many took as a reference to menstruation.
Their first exchange saw the two greet each other awkwardly, with Trump telling Kelly: “Nice to be with you. You’re looking well.” Kelly quickly thanked Trump and moved into a question on immigration.
The debate stage was one smaller than the last time the GOP field came together. Ben Carson has all but said he will exit the race and is expected to do so Friday after a speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference. Carson, who is from Detroit, did not participate in Thursday’s debate.