It was only minutes into Thursday night’s Republican debate when the front-runner hit a new low.
"Look at these hands. Are these small hands?” Donald Trump said, referring to an attack leveled by Marco Rubio. “He said if they're small, something else must be small, and I guarantee you there’s no problem.”
In an often bewildering campaign, the front-runner discussing the size of his penis was still shocking. If many viewers chose to tune out after that incident, they would have been forgiven. Those who stuck around were treated to a seesaw debate, which featured some of the most probing questions asked of the candidates so far but also included heated exchanges of childish insults and incoherent shouting.
Trump’s flexibility with the truth is well known. More interesting is Trump’s flexibility with policy, for which the evening proved a key test. Will voters care about the specific stances that Trump takes and his fidelity to them, or do they care more about his attitude?
Trump came in with a target on his back. After a strong performance on Super Tuesday, the latest conventional wisdom is that the last chance for the Republican establishment and other candidates to stop Trump is on March 15. But it was the moderators—Fox News’ Chris Wallace, Bret Baier, and Trump’s old nemesis Megyn Kelly—who really made Trump squirm the most.
He was pounded by Kelly and Ted Cruz over what he said to The New York Times editorial board about immigration in an off-the-record conversation. (He refused to ask the newspaper to release tapes or transcripts.) Chris Wallace demanded to know how he’d close the federal budget and noted places where Trump’s math—on federal departments he’d close, or on savings from Medicare rate changes—doesn’t add up. Kelly pressed him on Trump University, the glorified real-estate seminar over which he’s being sued. Trump claimed the Better Business Bureau’s grade for Trump U. had been raised from a D- to an A, which Kelly pointed out was bogus. Trump got repeatedly rattled.
If voters care about Trump’s ideological consistency, he’s in trouble. Over and over again, Trump said he’d changed his mind on things: He no longer supports the assault-weapons ban. He’s had a change of heart about H1-B visas and now thinks they’re a good thing: “I’m changing.” When Kelly showed a series of clips in which Trump had flip-flopped—on whether to keep U.S. forces in Afghanistan, on whether to accept any Middle Eastern refugees, and on whether George W. Bush lied in the lead-up to the war in Iraq—Trump essentially pleaded no contest. He even described himself as “meek” on the Iraq question, hardly a word you’d associate with his campaign so far.
Instead, Trump built a case for compromise. “You have to show a degree of flexibility,” he said. Trump’s theory of the Republican campaign has been that voters want someone who’s saying what he feels and that they don’t really care much about fidelity to ideology. So far, the evidence has borne him out, but the contradictions and flip-flops highlighted on Thursday do threaten his authenticity.
Much of the debate, however, was less substantive and revealing. There were repeated stretches of shouting. Candidates called each other liars. They interrupted each other. Trump kept calling Rubio “this little guy” and “Little Marco.” (Weirdly, Rubio played along, calling Trump “Big Donald.”) The candidates tussled at length over what the polls show—who is winning the primary and about who could win the general election. Rubio, Cruz, and Kasich all understandably deplore Trump’s obsession with polls, but they are unable to change the terms of the debate. In the midst of this horror show, Ted Cruz (of all people) emerged briefly as the voice of reason: “Is this the debate you want playing out in the general election?" Almost certainly not—either for Republicans or for unaffiliated voters.
The funny thing about Trump’s rough performance was that no one else did especially well, either. Kasich disappeared for long stretches, popping up only to give capsule history lessons on national politics in the 1980s and 1990s and Ohio politics in more recent years—he was involved, in case you hadn’t heard. Cruz delivering a middling performance, with much of his emphasis on the fact that he’d beaten Trump in a few states. That was an easy jab for Trump to parry: After all, Trump had won more. Rubio was hoarse and seemed shrunken, chastened, and at sea. He tried to interrupt Trump to mix things up, but was shouted down by Trump—and several times cut off by the moderators, who insisted he let Trump answer his questions.
Trump was incoherent on trade: “I say, ‘Free trade, great,’ but not when they’re beating us so badly.” He reprised his call for the United States to employ torture in the war on terror. Wallace pushed Cruz hard on his plan to “abolish” the IRS—who would collect even the flat tax he supports? Cruz was forced to make some concessions. Rubio struggled to explain why he would send a large ground force to fight ISIS in Syria but not Libya. John Kasich appeared to back an Iraq-scale occupation of Libya.
Although the debate was held in Detroit, it took 80 minutes before any questions were posed about the lead-poisoning crisis in Flint. Rubio somehow managed to praise Governor Rick Snyder’s response, making him perhaps the only person in America willing to do so. Cruz attempted to lay Detroit’s struggles squarely at the feet of local Democratic politicians, sidestepping the national and global contexts of deindustrialization. Kasich was lucky enough to sidestep any questions about lead poisoning in his own state of Ohio.
The Republican Party appears on the edge of collapse, and the raucous debate in Detroit did nothing to erase that impression. But did it do anything to stop Trump, the agent of much of the internecine chaos? The forum occurred as some of the smartest GOP strategists argue that the party must try to wrest the nomination from Trump, even if it results in the party’s demise. Donors are spending millions in an effort to derail the front-runner, uniting under the banner “#NeverTrump.” Yet in the closing question of the night, the moderators asked Cruz, Kasich, and Rubio whether they would support Trump if he were the nominee. They have called him a con man, a liar, and unqualified for the presidency. Yet when the question came, each said they would. If they can’t do better to stop Trump than they did Thursday, that question will cease to be a hypothetical.
The Republican candidates found themselves facing a question they had to know they’d field: Would they support the nominee? And all four said yes. And that’s the race in a nutshell.
It’s almost impossible to reconcile that answer with the rhetoric they’ve deployed on the campaign trail in recent days. Marco Rubio has labeled Trump a “con man.” Cruz has hit his credibility as a conservative. Past nominees Mitt Romney and John McCain labeled Trump “dangerous” and unfit for the presidency earlier Thursday.
And yet, they all say they’ll support the nominee—and at the moment, Trump is the candidate closest to securing the nomination. If they can conceive of voting for Trump themselves, how will they ever convince Trump’s supporters that voting for Trump is unacceptable?
Meanwhile, outside the debate...
Kasich: I have a record, not just talk. OHIO. Lifting people up. As POTUS I'll fix the problems in Washington. "Together, we'll fix the problems in America, and I know you want that."
Rubio: If we do what needs to be done, we can leave our children a better future. The amazing story of America.
Cruz: I want to talk to the troops. Obama doesn't believe in you. Police officers: I will have your back.
Trump: I am going to bring jobs back and fix the military and take care of our vets and strengthen our borders. "You're going to be very proud of this country if I'm elected president."
Welp, when you summarize it like that, it's not hard to see why Trump is ahead, right? Literally the only candidate who directly addressed the economic situation of everyday Americans in his closing.
After Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz spend the majority of the debate attacking Trump and calling him a con artist, they are both promising to support him if/when he’s the nominee. Because con artists are better than socialists.
Rubio is a leader of the #NeverTrump campaign, and yet he says he'll support Trump if he's the Republican nominee. That's not never.
Ted Cruz says yes to Trump, too, because "I gave my word I would," he says.
Fun thing about that orbital missile-defense stuff: Cruz seeks desperately to use his position as chair of the Senate subcommittee on Space, Science, and Competitiveness to refocus NASA on space exploration and travel, with the associated potential military applications as well. While that sounds like a return to our "we choose to go to the moon" mix of militarism and idealism, there's an ulterior motive. Cruz has been shunting money from NASA's critical work on Earth sciences––including its role as one of the main researchers on climate change.
So, think Interstellar without the wormholes and benevolent space beings.
Ted Cruz was asked about recent news that North Korean leader Kim Jung Un has ordered nuclear weapons to be “ready for use at any time.” “This is all the result of the failures of the Clinton administration two decades ago,” Cruz says.
Trump sounds nothing like President Obama. But his defense of saying nice things about Vladimir Putin has echoes of what then-candidate Obama said in 2008, when he promised to meet with U.S. adversaries "without preconditions." Trump's argument is that maybe he could actually get along with Putin, get Russia's help containing ISIS, and direct more U.S. resources back home. Of course, Trump's GOP rivals would now say that there's no way Trump could get Putin to act in the America's interests just by playing nice.
There was a funny moment before the commercial break when Cruz was trying to get Trump to stop interrupting him. "Breathe. Breathe. Breathe," he told him in a mocking tone. Then Rubio jumped in to ask if he could speak when the "yoga" session was over.
Eight hours ago Benny Johnson posted a picture of Trump’s D- rating from the Better Business Bureau (hat tip: Noah Schactman):
Trump: "The Better Business Bureau rated Trump University an A+"— Benny (@bennyjohnson) March 3, 2016
Here is the last BBB scorecard rating: D- pic.twitter.com/LySBGzxgdw
But now the BBB site says the Trump Entrepreneur Initiative (aka Trump University) is not rated because it is “believed to be out of business.” The whole page has just been drained of information:
Donald Trump keeps accusing Ted Cruz of being “the primary supporter of John Roberts.” Is this now an effective attack in a Republican debate?
Ted Cruz isn't wrong about the assault-weapon ban: It's widely agreed to have been ineffective, as a vanishingly small proportion of gun crimes are committed by the types of weapons that were banned, and most were still available anyway due to grandfathering. Ninety-five percent of gun deaths result from handguns.
Bret Baier asks Kasich pointedly, "Do gay marriage dissenters have rights?" Kasich offers an example: A wedding photographer shouldn't be obliged to provide his or her services to a same-sex couple, and the couple should accept that because "we need to be more tolerant of each other."
It's interesting that Cruz didn't outright oppose adoption by same-sex couples. Instead, he simply said it should be left to the states. That's far from an endorsement of it, of course, but it's a curious evasion.
Worth noting that people in Flint, Detroit and across the Rust Belt have been poisoned by lead, copper, PCBs and other chemicals because of the lack of regulations that Ted Cruz wants to roll back.
“The city of Detroit has long struggled with urban blight,” says Megyn Kelly. She pivots to ask John Kasich about bailing out Detroit’s schools. Chris Wallace asks Ted Cruz what he’d do to bring manufacturing jobs back to America, and train residents to perform them.
Urban blight is not a force of nature, something that comes to a city unbidden. Outside the chaos of the debate hall is the city of Detroit—once the arsenal of democracy, stripped of its factories and jobs by decades of misbegotten state and federal policies. And, as Tom Sugrue brilliantly demonstrates in The Origins of the Urban Crisis, race lay at the heart of this.
Neither the moderators nor the candidates seem capable of grappling with this fact. Cruz lays its crisis at the feet of decades of failed left-wing policies—destructive tax policies and weak crime policies—driving citizens out. “That is a story the media ought to be telling over and over again,” he says. But there’s a reason it’s not the story that’s told. Whatever the merits or flaws of those policies, they’re not what gutted Detroit. They’re the attempts of those left behind—often, prevented from following their jobs out to the suburbs by redlining and housing discrimination—to contain the damage. Democrats aren’t blameless on this account, either—Bernie Sanders’s Twitter account has been sharing its own distorted retelling of this history this afternoon, pinning the blame on free trade.
It’s hard to see how to fix a city like Detroit—or, for that matter, Flint—without a more honest accounting of what went wrong in the first place.
That was it?
He offers no specifics, however, of what the federal government should do, if anything, in response.
This should mark one of the first substantial Republican discussions about Flint. They’ve never really known how to handle it. Attacking Republican Governor Rick Snyder is a no-go, and placing the blame at the feet of say the EPA means the EPA actually has a role.
Marco Rubio calls the Flint crisis "a systemic breakdown" at every level of government, but he also criticizes Democrats for politicizing it.
John Kasich seems like a character actor inserted into this debate and told to exude empathy. Director: “Try to work in the word yearning. And close with an invocation of the American spirit.”
Ted Cruz responds to another bitter fight between Marco Rubio and Donald Trump over who's the bigger scam artist by asking of Republican voters, "Is this the debate you want playing out in the general election?"
In 2014, Tom McNichol wrote about the problems with Trump University for The Atlantic:
These seminars served little purpose other than to enroll the attendees in expensive Trump University training programs, retreats, and coaching sessions. The playbook makes Trump’s school seem like not so much a school of higher learning as a meticulously choreographed sales event. Perhaps not surprisingly, Trump University turns out to be more “Trump” than “University.”
Already, this debate has offered viewers the most sustained, specific, documented critique of Donald Trump ever offered in this format. If the Trump University exchange doesn’t stop the candidate’s string of victories, it’s hard to see how anything would.
Fox News has done really well tonight in at least trying to fact-check Trump (and others, but mostly Trump) in real time. It's very difficult to do, but the moderators, just like the candidates, have improved with experience in this format.
Trump's point about showing flexibility strikes me as one that would actually make sense to people. I think the point that he could make is that he actually speaks so frequently on television that he often is confronted with questions about topics he knows nothing about, except instead of saying 'I don't know' or "I'll have to study it,' he makes something up on the fly based on whatever his gut tells him at the time. On one level, it's further proof that he's not a typical, scripted politician. He's also quite uninformed about many issues.
Trump looks a little rattled after being confronted with these clips of him contradicting himself. He skipped the last Fox debate shortly before his big victory in New Hampshire where they deployed similar footage against the other candidates. One can't help but wonder if this race's trajectory would look a little different had he faced this grilling before he started winning, not after.
Mario Cuomo famously observed that you campaign in poetry, and govern in prose. And tonight, Trump is speaking in free verse, channelling the spirit of that most American of poets, Walt Whitman. Listen closely, and you can hear the echoes. “I celebrate myself, and sing myself,” his most famous poem begins. Pure Donald, right?
And, as Megyn Kelly airs a brutal clip reel, Trump maintains his equanimity:
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
I wonder if these supposed flip-flops are actually detrimental to Trump. He thought one way, got more information, changed his mind. At least that’s what he’s pitching. The audience seems to be responding well. “You have to have a certain degree of flexibility,” he said. “You have to be flexible. Because you learn."
As Trump repeats his pledge to expand the use of torture and kill terrorists' families, it's important to note that both actions would violate the Geneva Conventions as well as American law. Former CIA director Michael Hayden was even more emphatic in a recent interview: "If he were to order that once in government, the American armed forces would refuse to act."
It's not an exaggeration to conclude that Trump's proposals would also lead to the deepest civil-military crisis since Truman fired MacArthur.
"I knew Ronald Reagan..." John Kasich says, joking that he won't repeat the rest of the famous quote that Lloyd Bentsen famously used to describe his friednship with John F. Kennedy during a 1988 vice presidential debate with Dan Quayle.
Kasich was citing Reagan to promote his long experience both in military and economic policy.
Donald Trump: Edward Snowden is a spy, and if Russia respected us they would have sent him back immediately.
Snowden isn't a spy. But if he were, it would be extra weird for his home country to send him back, Donald.
Cruz vows to kill anyone who wages jihad against the United States. There are two problems with this. One, people who wish for martyrdom, as many Islamist militants do, won’t be dissuaded. Second, the U.S. has had no problem killing terrorists en masse. That hasn’t had much deterrent effect on recruitment.
As Donald Trump promises to torture people if elected, I wonder if President Obama is second-guessing his decision to “look forward” on torture rather than holding torturers accountable. And I wonder if Dianne Feinstein is wishing she would have pressed harder to declassify the whole torture report. I wish someone in the Senate or the House would invoke their right under the speech and debate clause to enter it into the record.
Asked what he would do if U.S. military leaders refuse to cooperate with Donald Trump, he says “They wouldn't refuse!” and follows with an endorsement of waterboarding, suggesting Americans even “go tougher than water boarding.”
Rubio and Cruz attacked Trump for hiring only 17 of the 300 U.S. residents who have applied to work at his Palm Beach golf club since 2010. They're quoting a recent story from the New York Times, which reports that Trump actually pursued 500 visas for foreign workers at his Mar-a-Lago club since 2010, rather than hiring domestic applicants.
Great question from Bret Baier to Marco Rubio: You’ve advocated for a large ground force to fight ISIS in Syria. Generals say Libya is the biggest ISIS threat to Europe right now. Does that mean you’d send a large ground force to Libya, too?
When Marco Rubio attacks Donald Trump, he seems like Ralphie in A Christmas Story in the scene where he reaches a breaking point and attacks the bully. Whereas when Ted Cruz attacks Donald Trump, he seems more like a prosecutor trying to impeach the credibility of a witness.
Well, Trump comes out strongly in favor of H1-B visas, saying, “I’m changing.” He says it’s essential to keep American-educated foreigners in the country.
Trump suggests he's doing the Times journalists a favor by not authorizing, or demanding, that they release the tapes. He says he's trying to "honor" an agreement. That's not how it works. In most cases, journalists want everything to be on the record and only agree to conduct an interview off the record in the hope that the subject will be more candid.
“If [Trump] wants to call up and ask us to release this transcript, he’s free to do that and then we can decide what we would do,” New York Times editorial page editor Andrew Rosenthal told Buzzfeed.
Trump says, “If you don’t have give and take, you’re never going to get anything.” GOP orthodoxy—espoused by Cruz, most of all—holds that Republican voters don’t want any kind of compromise. Trump’s work to sell himself as a dealmaker throughout the campaign calls that piece of orthodoxy into question, along with quite a few other items of faith in the Republican catechism.
Wow. Donald Trump defends an off-the-record meeting with the New York Times editorial board as sacrosanct. That’s gonna be a tough sell to anti-establishment populists, right?
Megyn Kelly asks Ted Cruz about Jeff Sessions, a hard-liner on immigration, endorsement of Donald Trump. Does that make Cruz's stance on immigration weaker against the Republican front-runner? Cruz uses the opportunity to list all the instances in which Trump has supported politicians, like Clinton. Trump’s response? He concedes, appearing to catch Cruz off guard.
John Kasich had what may have been his best opportunity to distinguish himself on the debate stage right there, and he used it to argue that he was the only canddiate in either party to have actually written and enacted a balanced budget, when he was the Republican chairman of the House Budget Committee in the 1990s. He said Bill Clinton "tried to take credit for it," but he should be rewarded for it now.
Ted Cruz says it’s understandable when a businessman gives a donation to a local politician because you want a zoning decision, though he calls it corruption. Isn’t that an indictment of the entire campaign-finance system? Is Ted Cruz a closet Citizens United-skeptic?
Chris Wallace grilled Trump about his budget-cutting plan, calling up pre-packaged slides to illustrate that his numbers don’t add up. And Trump lacked strong answers.
But this is a venal sin among presidential candidates. The Tax Foundation estimates that Cruz’s plan would blow a $3.7 trillion hole in the budget over 10 years, Rubio’s $6 trillion, and Trump’s $12 trillion. (Their dynamic model reduces those figures, but all three plans are still in the red.) To hold Trump to account for his dubious math only makes sense if the other candidates are also measured by the same standards. So far, no sign of that.
Ted Cruz: Donald Trump has supported establishment politicians for 4 decades.
Donald Trump: Yep, that’s right.
The exchange illustrates a disconnect in this election, whereby Cruz and Rubio attack Trump for breaking with conservative orthodoxy, and Trump admits having done so, figuring that his supporters don’t care—in part, I think, because the public reasonably associates the conservative movement with the Republican establishment that has been running Washington with the Democrats.
There’s a consistent pattern here: Chris Wallace asks a great question, and the candidates do everything they can to wriggle out of answering that question as quickly as possible.
Trump's idea for Medicare drug negotiation is rather similar to Clinton's and Sanders'. In fact, not much of what has actually been elucidated of his health plan is different than Clinton's for elderly voters, at least. The lack of imagination in Medicare proposals underscores that nobody really knows what to do to control Medicare costs while also not simply cutting services.
We’re getting rid of Common Core,” Trump says, as he touts how he would advance education in the country. But Common Core, a set of academic standards for mathematics and reading, is applied at the state level and not explicitly mandated by the federal government. The standards was expected to be a point of contention in the Republican race early on, particularly among governors. Tonight, Trump continues to condemn them.
"For 40 years, Donald Trump has been part of the corruption in Washington that you're angry about," Ted Cruz with a direct appeal to Trump's voters.
Aside from a few broadsides early in the debate, Ted Cruz has left the Trump-bashing to Marco Rubio. The television wide shot in the most recent spat was telling: wild gesticulation from Trump and Rubio, a bemused look from John Kasich, and Ted Cruz sitting pretty, keeping his mouth shut.
Ted Cruz is the only one in the Republican race who seems able to attack Donald Trump without seeming to sink to his level. At the same time, Cruz is just so darned unlikable generally. While Rubio, who has the more likable personality, can’t pull off attacking Trump without seeming to descend to his level.
For the second debate in a row, Trump is asked what he’d cut from the federal budget. His numbers don’t work at all: He says he’d cut the Education Department and the EPA, as well as waste, fraud, and abuse. As Wallace points out, that’s a total of about $86 billion, well short of the $544 billion federal deficit.
“The strength of our country is in our neighborhoods and our families,” Kasich said earlier tonight. It’s a classically conservative theme—a focus on the local institutions that form the fabric of American life—but one that’s received little attention in a race often dominated by invective.
As David mentioned, Jim Fallows recently looked at America’s cities and towns—and found many of them thriving, even as Washington succumbs to sclerosis. Kasich’s entire bid is based on a version of this case: that he’s succeeded as a governor in Ohio, and can translate that success to D.C. But Republican voters have been notably unimpressed this year by such records of substantive accomplishment. Jeb Bush, Rick Perry, Chris Christie, and Jim Gilmore have already bowed out of the race, leaving Kasich as the last governor standing. And his case tonight draws polite applause, but not the raucous cheers drawn by the vocal exchanges of insults.
Actual exchange: "Don't worry about it, little Marco." "Okay, big Donald." "Don't worry about it, little Marco."
Well, here's the thing. Why should the party of business endorse business practices that don't make money? Seems Trump has a decent enough defense in just saying this is what the current system allows.
Once again, Wallace asks Trump a specific question—whether and when he’ll start making his clothing lines in America—and once again Trump avoids answering it directly.
Trump is asked to respond to Rubio's demand that he move his clothing line production out of China and Mexico. He ignores it except to say, "This little guy has lied so much about my record."
Once again, I think debates give an importance to pathways and electability that just doesn't seem to mesh with what people are actually voting on. Exit polls for Republican primaries so far indicate that the perceived ability to win is far behind whether a candidate actually endorses policies that the voter agrees with. Shorter, more obvious, but sweet: People vote for the candidates they like.
Kasich’s argument here is that people haven’t heard his message, and that they will soon. It’s honestly tough to credit this argument at this stage. If Kasich hasn’t managed to get his message out yet, when and how will he do it?
"Bret, I think we're all really there." John Kasich acknowledges that not only he, but Cruz and Rubio, have no chance to win the nomination other than to force Trump into a contested convention.
Asking horserace questions to candidates is basically inviting them, “Engage in shameless spin and the invocation of selective evidence to make the case that you’re the best horserace candidate."
Donald Trump is again bragging about the size of his … polling margins. His challengers have suggested that they’re not actually all that large, but Trump quickly rattles off his measurements. Yuuuuge.
Many frontrunners try to run out the clock in an election by trying not to make any news that could change the trajectory of a race in which he or she is running. True to form, Trump is the opposite: He came into this debate knowing he would make a penis reference that will undoubtedly be aired ad infinitum over the next few days, denying his rivals the chance to get the air time needed to overtake him. Or at least, that seems to be his strategy.
Ten minutes in, and the debate has already descended into chaos with Trump shouting about the polls, saying he "hasn't even started on Hillary yet."
After an attack from Ted Cruz, Trump touts his primary wins. “Just for the record, I've won ten—he's won three or four? … I was half a million votes higher than him. I was a million votes higher than Marco. That's a lot of votes.” Trump is famous for touting his poll results; now, he’s transitioned to his vote totals.
Trump: “He hit my hands. Nobody has ever hit my hands. Look at those hands. Are those small hands? And he referred to my hands, if they’re small, something else must be small. I guarantee you there’s no problem. I guarantee it.”
The American people, says Ted Cruz, “are interested in solutions, not slogans.” It’s a good line. It’s the sort of thing you could print on a bumper sticker, or write on a sign. You might even call it a...slogan.
“I take that back. He's really not that much of a lightweight,” Donald Trump says of Marco Rubio.
Marco Rubio goes after the media for the coverage of personal attacks amongst candidates, pleading instead for a discussion about policy.
Chris Wallace asked a very good question, asking Trump not to disavow Duke or the KKK, but to state his own views on white supremacy. Unfortunately, when Trump declined to answer the question, Wallace didn’t press him on it.
Donald Trump: “I totally disavow the Klu Klux Klan.” There’s the direct sound byte that Trump critics have been asking for.
Trump not only gets the first question, he gets the first two questions.
Accused by Mitt Romney of being a man who ignores substance and insults people, Donald Trump begins by insulting Mitt Romney as a loser, then segues into declaring that America is losing to China and Japan on trade. “I have the greatest business people in the world lined up,” he said. “We will make great trade deals."
Trump does the same thing he did this afternoon on the stump—asked about Romney’s deeply personal attacks, he instead pivots to trade. This is an issue on which many of Trump’s voters split with Romney and other doctrinaire free-trade conservatives. It’s both a substantive point, and a way of painting Romney as elite and out of touch with the concerns of blue-collar workers.
Trump offers a now-familiar argument against Romney's public criticism of his policies and temperament: "Look, he was a failed candidate," and his loss "was an embarrassment" to the Republican Party.
The first question of the night goes to Trump, on Romney’s broadside against him. Chris Wallace isn’t pulling any punches.
As the four remaining Republican candidates meet tonight for the most intimate debate of the primary season, they are fighting for the nomination of a party at war with its voters. In the 48 hours since Donald Trump’s Super Tuesday success, the GOP establishment has started moving aggressively to wrest the nomination from his hands before he can reach the 1,237 delegates he needs to secure it.
Dominating the hours leading up to the debate was a rhetorical bout between Trump and the man he endorsed for the presidency in 2012, Mitt Romney. The former Massachusetts governor laid into Trump during a speech in Utah, calling him a “phony” and a “fraud” and urging Republican voters to support any of the three other candidates besides him. Trump responded in his typical style, by mocking Romney as a loser who was “begging” for his endorsement four years ago.
The problem for Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and John Kasich tonight is this: What else can they throw at him? The proverbial kitchen sink is long gone, and so, in all likelihood, are the chances for any of them to win enough delegates in the remaining contests to clinch the nomination without a contested convention. With victories in Texas, Oklahoma, and Alaska on Tuesday, Cruz won nearly as many delegates as Trump, but the map of non-Southern states going forward is not as favorable for him. Rubio and Kasich each face win-or-go-home contests in their home states of Florida and Ohio on March 15, but even winning there might not be enough for either of them.
First comes Michigan, the site of tonight’s debate where voters go to the polls on Tuesday. Trump holds a big lead in recent surveys, and while Kasich had been targeting the state, he is now far back. Policy has taken a back seat to insults and fights over temperament and tactics, but look for Fox’s Megyn Kelly to ask the Republicans how they would respond to the water crisis in Flint, which Hillary Clinton has made a centerpiece of her campaign lately.
Yet the question that could provoke the biggest fireworks is a version of the one that led off the very first Republican debate back in August: Will Cruz, Rubio, and Kasich commit to supporting Trump if he is the clear choice of Republican voters when the primaries end and the candidates head to Cleveland in July?