The Republican presidential race keeps going there.
On the day the party’s previous nominee, Mitt Romney, took the unprecedented step of condemning his likely successor, Donald Trump, for his “bullying,” “greed,” “misogyny” and “absurd, third-grade theatrics,” Trump used his first debate answer Thursday night to defend his, um, size.
“He referred to my hands — if they are small, something else must be small,” Trump said, referring to a past swipe by competitor Marco Rubio. “I guarantee you there is no problem. I guarantee.”
Another historic moment in American politics.
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
In his first answer, moments earlier, Trump had been forced to disavow the Ku Klux Klan and its former grand wizard, David Duke, who has promoted Trump’s candidacy. (“Obviously I’m going to disavow,” Trump said, pointing to his preferred social medium. “Take a look at my Twitter account.”)
The 11th GOP debate, held in Detroit, featured three candidates, frustrated by their party’s presumptive nominee, trying desperately, any way they could, to somehow nudge Trump off his leader’s perch before it is too late to deny him the presidential nomination. Yet they all pledged to back him if he won the nomination.
In truth, it may already be fantasy to think any of the others has much of a shot; what they’re really pinning their hopes on is a brokered convention the likes of which Republicans haven’t seen in nearly seven decades.
So Cruz, Rubio and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, the last men standing not named Trump, laid off each other. They didn’t gang up on Trump, exactly — even though that’s what Romney, who spoke earlier in the day in Utah, seemed to suggest as a strategy to keep Trump from winning loads of nominating delegates. But they shared a target. And Trump kept swatting them off.
“Little Marco,” he proclaimed of Rubio. “Lyin’ Ted,” he labeled Cruz. Kasich, who kept to his inclusive message and who’s hardly a threat to Trump outside of Kasich’s home of Ohio, got a pass.
The Fox News moderators, now familiar to the candidates in the third debate hosted by the cable network, pressed for answers, displaying federal budget numbers on the screen and again challenging candidates — in this case, Trump with a video montage of his past policy shifting.
Trump, however, seemed immune to suggestions that he’s a flip-flopper — or that he holds no firm positions at all.
“I’m changing it, and I’m softening the position,” he admitted about now wanting more visas for high-skilled foreign workers.
Asked about an off-the-record January interview with The New York Times editorial board in which he supposedly indicated leeway on his proposed illegal-immigration crackdown, Trump shrugged it off.
“There always has to be some tug and pull and deal,” he said, refusing to allow the newspaper to release a transcript of the conversation, which would seemingly undermine a foundation of Trump’s platform. “You have to be able to have some flexibility, some negotiation.”
But what should voters believe? Kasich asked. “Politicians all the time tell them what they want to hear… and they don’t deliver on those promises.”
Kasich, now in a smaller field of candidates since Ben Carson’s exit, appeared to get more time than ever before to make a pitch to Michigan and Ohio, the two rust-belt states that could determine his candidacy’s future.
For Rubio, that state is Florida, which like Ohio votes March 15. The Florida senator, on the heels of a rough Super Tuesday, looked drained and spoke in a raspy voice. But he still delivered several zingers against Trump — none of the stubby-fingers variety — even though his interrupting tactic wasn’t as successful as it was in the previous debate a week ago.
“He doesn’t have answers. This is not a game,” Rubio said as he poked Trump for manufacturing Trump-branded clothing overseas and for brands that ultimately failed. “You ever heard of Trump Steaks? Ever heard of Trump Vodka? He’s not going to make America great.”
Rubio defended mocking Trump on the campaign trail in the days leading up to Tuesday’s contests, in which Rubio won a single state.
“For the last year, Donald Trump has basically mocked everybody with personal attacks,” Rubio said. “He has done so to people that are sitting on the stage today. He has done so about people that are disabled. He has done it about every candidate in this race.”
Trump faced moderator Megyn Kelly on stage for the first time since lambasting her questions after the first Republican debate, last August in Cleveland. He skipped the second Fox debate, in January in Des Moines, to protest Kelly's presence.
“Nice to be with you, Megyn,” Trump said. “You’re looking well.”
But the diplomatic tone didn’t last.
At one point, Trump, who is ahead of Rubio in Florida polls, used one of Rubio’s own insults against him.
“The real con artist is Sen. Marco Rubio,” Trump said, pointing to Rubio's many absences on Capitol Hill. “The people of Florida can't stand him. He couldn't be elected dog catcher.”
Cruz let Rubio and Trump go at it for extended periods — and then stepped in trying to sound above the bickering.
“Is this the debate you want playing out in the general election?” he asked the rowdy crowd. “Noooo!” they responded.
“If we nominate Donald, we’re going to spend the fall and the summer with the Republican nominee facing a fraud trial....”
“It’s a minor civil case,” Trump cut in.
“Donald, learn not to interrupt. It’s not complicated,” Cruz continued.
And then, perhaps again channeling the wishes of the audience, he added: “Count to 10.”