Republican front-runner Donald Trump in Thursday’s presidential debate was challenged on his blanket declaration that “Islam hates us” as his rivals sought to paint him as naive and his rhetoric as destructive to America’s alliances.
The issue was one of the few in which Trump, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Ohio Gov. John Kasich engaged in the kind of heated exchange that has marked the previous 11 Republican debates. For much of the two hours on the CNN broadcast from Coral Gables, Florida, they calmly discussed the uncertain future of Social Security, free trade and Common Core in schools. They steered clear of personal insults.
“I would say this,” Trump said a third of the way through. “We are all in this together. We are going to come together . . . so far, I cannot believe how civil it has been up here.”
The surprisingly sober tone came as polls showed Trump with rising disapproval ratings among voters overall and as many leaders in the Republican party have grown more desperate to derail Trump’s march to the nomination.
Trump urged GOP leaders to embrace his enthusiastic following to win the White House, rather than fight it. He said, “Be smart and unify.”
The moderators pressed Trump on hard line views that have horrified his critics and electrified his grass-roots supporters, including his comment in a CNN interview Wednesday that “I think Islam hates us.”
“I mean a lot of them, I mean a lot of them,” Trump said when pressed on whether he meant that all 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide hate the United States. “I will stick with exactly what I said . . . I don’t want to be politically correct.”
“In large mosques all over the Middle East you have people changing, ‘Death to the USA,’ ” Trump said.
Rubio said a president must know that he will need to work with moderate Muslim leaders around the world to fight terrorists and respect Muslim Americans, noting those who serve in the U.S. military.
“I’m not interested in being politically correct,” Rubio said. “I just want to be correct.”
Cruz, suggesting Trump has a pattern of simplistic views, said, “The answer is not simply to yell, ‘China bad, Muslims bad.’ ”
Said Kasich: “I think there is a sect of radical Islam that is very serious . . . That’s why the whole world has to work together.”
On Social Security, Trump stuck to his assertion that he will grow the economy so much that the retirement program will remain solvent for generations.
But without changes for future retirees, “Social Security will go bankrupt and the country will go bankrupt with it,” Rubio said. He said the retirement age will have to rise to 68 from 67, and up to 70 for future generations.
Cruz criticized Trump for threatening a 45 percent tariff on trade with China and other countries to end unfair competition, saying the plan ultimately would hurt American consumers who would be forced to pay higher prices.
“Donald was right about international trade,” Cruz said. “He’s right about the problems, but his solutions don’t work.”
“The 45 percent is a threat,” Trump responded. “It will be a tax if they don’t behave . . . it could be more, it could be less, but it has to be something.”
Trump continues to be well ahead in a field now reduced to Cruz, Kasich and Rubio as they enter another big primary night on Tuesday in Florida, Ohio, Illinois, North Carolina and Missouri with a total of 358 delegates at stake.
Cruz increasingly is seen by the GOP establishment as the most likely challenger to head off Trump.
Rubio is on the ropes after his decision to go after Trump with personal insults backfired. Republican leaders say the senator needs to win his home state Tuesday to remain viable, but he faces an uphill battle.
Also on Tuesday, Kasich faces a critical test in his home state. A Fox News poll this week showed Kasich narrowly ahead of Trump in Ohio.