Personal insults erupted moments into a Republican presidential debate Thursday night in Detroit as Donald Trump’s rivals fought with new urgency to stop his march to the nomination before it’s too late.
Marco Rubio defended his hammering of Trump over the last week, saying, “If there’s anyone who ever deserved to be attacked that way, it’s Donald Trump.”
Trump, in turn, called Rubio a “little guy” who has lied about his record, and Trump defended himself against the Florida senator’s double-entendre about the New York billionaire having small hands.
“Are they small hands?” Trump said, holding them up for the audience to see. As for any other part of his anatomy, Trump said, “I guarantee you there’s no problem.”
The harsh words came after fleeting moments of conciliation. Trump noted that he’s called Rubio “a lightweight” and said, “I would like to take that back, he’s really not that much of a lightweight.” A few minutes later, after a stinging comment from Rubio, Trump made his remark about Rubio being a “little guy.”
Asked about Mitt Romney, who on Thursday called Trump a “phony,” the GOP front-runner dismissed the criticism.
“Well, look, he was a failed candidate, he should have beaten President Obama very easily. He failed miserably and it was a big embarrassment to everybody,” Trump said. He added: “Obviously he wants to be relevant, he wants to be back in the game.”
At times it looked like the candidates were trying to see who could speak the loudest, occasionally punctuating comments by shouting, “Wrong!”
“The audience cannot understand when you’re talking over each other,” Megyn Kelly, one of the moderators, said at one point.
“Donald, learn not to interrupt,” Texas Sen. Ted Cruz said at one point.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich, noting the bitter remarks flying about him, said people have praised him for his much quieter demeanor during the GOP debates. He said people tell him, “You seem to be the adult on the stage.”
The scheduled two-hour session in downtown Detroit, the 11th of the Republican primary season, comes at a pivotal stage of the GOP nominating fight.
After a strong showing on Super Tuesday, when he carried seven of 11 states, Trump is poised to run away with the GOP nomination unless one of his opponents — Cruz, Kasich or Rubio — can turn the direction of the race in the next two weeks.
Their first chance comes Saturday, when Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana and Maine vote. On Tuesday, Mississippi and Michigan follow.
The latter will be especially significant as the first vote in a big Northern industrial state; the upper Midwest has been a battleground in the last several general election contests.
However, the biggest test for the GOP hopefuls will be on March 15, when Rubio and Kasich face last-stand contests in their respective home states.
The stakes there go beyond mere symbolism or personal pride. Both states have winner-take-all contests and if Trump should win the two, it could be impossible to stop him from gathering the majority of delegates needed to lock down the nomination ahead of this summer’s GOP convention.
In the hours before the debate, Trump traded barbs with Romney, the Republican Party’s 2012 nominee. In a speech at the University of Utah, Romney said Trump’s campaign promises were worthless.
“Let me put it plainly, if we Republicans choose Donald Trump as our nominee, the prospects for a safe and prosperous future are greatly diminished,” Romney said. “His domestic policies would lead to recession. His foreign policies would make America and the world less safe. He has neither the temperament nor the judgment to be president.”
Trump responded a few hours later a rally in Portland, Maine.
“I backed Mitt Romney. He was begging for my endorsement,” Trump said, referring to the 2012 primary contest. “I could have said, ‘Mitt, drop to your knees.’ He would have dropped to his knees.”
Apart from the verbal combat between candidates there was a subplot going into Thursday night’s debate, as Trump prepared to face Fox News anchor Kelly for the first time since a confrontation last August in the initial GOP debate.
Trump was angered when Kelly asked about demeaning comments he has made over the years about women. In the days that followed, he lambasted her as, among other insults, a bimbo, lightweight and third-rate reporter.
Trump skipped a debate just before the Iowa caucuses in January, when Fox refused his request to remove Kelly as co-moderator. The move may have cost Trump votes in the Iowa caucuses, which he lost to Cruz.
He made no boycott threats ahead of Thursday night’s session.
Polls show Trump leading in Michigan, though Cruz and Rubio are campaigning hard. Kasich at one point viewed the state as a must-win; lately he has suggested the true test is carrying Ohio.
The debate was the first without Ben Carson, the retired neurosurgeon and a favorite of Christian conservatives. He is not a serious contender for the GOP nomination and, bowing to the inevitable, announced Wednesday he would not take part in the debate though he did not officially withdraw from the presidential race.