Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump took his swagger from big wins on Super Tuesday into a debate Thursday night by defending his business record, his shifts in positions and even his anatomy.
Taking the attack to Trump on character and policy issues were Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, whom Trump repeatedly called “little Marco” and “the real con artist”; and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, whom Trump called “lying Ted.”
Ohio Gov. John Kasich tried to stay above the fray, slapping at each of the other candidates for not displaying presidential decorum.
“I talk about issues. I have never tried to get into these scrums . . . people tell me wherever I go I appear to be the adult on the stage,” Kasich said.
The challengers each targeted the billionaire developer in an attempt to derail him before he can seal the party nomination.
More than in recent contentious debates, the candidates shouted over each other and exchanged angry retorts that had Cruz at one point, while trying to stop Trump’s interruptions, saying, “Count to 10, Donald, count to 10.”
“Donald has a tenuous relationship with the truth,” Cruz said.
“Lying Ted,” Trump shot back.
Trump came under questioning by the Fox News moderators and assault from his opponents over his boasts of business success and over his past support of Democrats, including Hillary Clinton in her 2008 presidential campaign.
Trump said his business empire
has “very low debt, tremendous cash flow . . . I say that because it’s the kind of thinking this country needs with its $19 trillion in debt.”
Trump often made his sharpest attacks against Rubio, who is third in most polls. Last weekend, Rubio made fun of Trump’s hands, calling them small, and said, “You know what they say” when a man has small hands.
“He hit my hands, nobody has ever hit my hands . . . and he referred to my hands — if they are small, something else must be small. I guarantee you, there is no problem,” Trump said to hoots from the Detroit audience.
Rubio slammed Trump for having a clothing company that manufactures products in China and Mexico.
Trump blamed bad trade policies, which he said he would improve as president, for forcing him to use factories in other countries, but said he is starting to bring more of his jobs back to the United States.
“The answer is, he’s not going to do it,” Rubio shot back.
“You haven’t employed one person,” Trump countered.
The moderators used visuals that showed holes in some of the candidates’ boldest proposals.
Cruz defended his plan to eliminate the Internal Revenue Service, which the moderators questioned.
“In my simple flat tax . . . Americans will be able to fill out their taxes on a postcard when we get rid of all the carve-outs in the tax code,” Cruz said. “There will still be an office in the Treasury Department to receive the postcard.
Trump was criticized for a change in his hard-line immigration plans — he no longer opposes visas for highly skilled foreign workers.
“I’m changing, I’m changing” on immigration, Trump said. “We do need highly skilled people . . . I’m softening my position.”
Trump also said, “I have never seen a successful person who wasn’t flexible.”
Later, that remark gave Rubio a punchline after Trump started talking over Cruz.
“Just breathe, Donald, just breathe,” Cruz said. “I know it’s hard for you not to interrupt.”
“When they’re done with the yoga, can I answer a question?” Rubio interjected. Cruz quipped that the last thing he wanted to see was yoga on the stage.
“Well,” Rubio deadpanned, “he’s very flexible.”
Cruz said that if Trump is nominated, he will spend the fall defending himself against fraud allegations against his for-profit school. A New York court has ruled that a $40 million lawsuit by the state accusing Trump University of defrauding its students can go forward.
“That’s a minor, civil case,” Trump said.
After his Super Tuesday wins, Trump is the commanding front-runner.
But he also is the target of many Republican Party leaders who claim his angry, hard-line demeanor threatens the party and, if he is elected, would threaten national security.
But while some Republican leaders now say they won’t support Trump if he’s the GOP candidate in November, Rubio, Cruz and Kasich promised to support the nominee, even if it’s Trump.
Trump was asked if he, too, would support whoever wins the nomination. “Even if it’s not me?” Trump asked with a smile. “The answer is, ‘Yes, I will.’ ”