Trump on Defensive During Raucous GOP Debate

Trump on Defensive During Raucous GOP Debate
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In a rollicking debate before a capacity crowd in Michigan – where Republicans will go to the polls Tuesday – 2016 GOP front-runner Donald Trump was on the defensive from the get-go Thursday night, fending off pointed questions from the Fox News moderators and sustained attacks from his rivals over his positions on immigration, taxes, gun control, national security, and his former business dealings.

The event in Detroit began, rather predictably, with a question for Trump about Mitt Romney’s broadside against him, launched earlier in the day from Utah. Trump was prepared, firing back that the 2012 GOP presidential candidate “failed miserably, and it was an embarrassment to everybody, including the Republican Party.”

Minutes later, however, Trump left jaws agape by reassuring the millions of viewers that Marco Rubio’s recent insinuation about the size of some of Trump’s body parts was completely unfounded.

“And he referred to my hands, if they are small, something else must be small. I guarantee you there is no problem. I guarantee,” Trump said to a mixture of laughter and gasps from the audience.

Over the course of the next two hours, Trump was forced to defend far more than the size of his manhood. A low point for Trump was a lengthy exchange over Trump University, the now defunct school he founded that is the subject of a class action lawsuit by former students who allege they were defrauded.

Rubio and moderator Megyn Kelly challenged Trump’s contention that the school received an “A” rating from the Better Business Bureau, and Kelly went on to read a passage from a Court of Appeals ruling comparing the Trump University plaintiffs to Bernie Madoff’s victims.

“Oh, give me a break,” Trump shot back. In the end, however, the best Trump could manage to say was, “Let's see what happens at the end of a couple years when this case is over, OK?”

Trump was also pressed hard on his core convictions. During the course of the debate he admitted he has changed his position on two issues (he’s now in favor of visas for highly skilled foreign workers and against the assault weapons ban), and argued repeatedly for the need to show “flexibility” to be a successful negotiator.

Ted Cruz, who turned in one of the strongest performances of the night, parlayed Trump’s praise of “flexibility” into a stiff one-two punch; a left jab at Trump’s previous suggestion he would be willing to compromise on the issue of religious freedom, and a right cross at Trump’s possible vulnerability in a general election.

When you nominate a candidate who literally has been on every side of every issue, and in the course of this debate may be on two other sides before we're done, that's not how you win. And the stakes are too high,” Cruz said.

The question of Trump’s “flexibility” also led to the strongest – and funniest – line of the night from Rubio. Here’s the exchange, sparked by Cruz’s chiding of Trump for interrupting his answer:

CRUZ: But, Donald, please, I know it's hard not to interrupt. But try.

TRUMP: Yeah, I know it is. But it's not what you said in the op-ed.

CRUZ: Breathe, breathe, breathe.

TRUMP: Lyin' Ted.

CRUZ: You can do it. You can breathe. I know it's hard. I know it's hard. But just...

RUBIO: When they're done with the yoga, can I answer a question?

CRUZ: You cannot.

(LAUGHTER)

RUBIO: Unbelievable.

CRUZ: I really hope that we don't – we don't see yoga on this stage.

RUBIO: Well, he's very flexible, so you never know.

Rubio’s quick wit – a far cry from the Marcobot malfunction four weeks ago in New Hampshire – capped a decent overall performance. But it remains unclear whether Rubio’s aggressive, head-to-head attacks on Trump are hurting his opponent or helping him.

Conversely, Ohio Gov. John Kasich turned in another strong performance in part by staying largely above the fray. As in past debates, Kasich used his limited time to make the case for his experience, accomplishments and ability to bring people together.

Offered an opportunity by the moderators to attack Trump over his comments praising Vladimir Putin, Kasich responded, “I’m not biting,” before quickly pivoting to an overview of global hot spots.

As the debate came to a close, the anti-Trump factions within the Republican Party that had spent much of the last 48 hours in a panicked frenzy must have been feeling a bit hopeful. It was a rough night for the front-runner.

But then the moderators asked one final question: Would the three other candidates on stage vow to support Trump if he were the nominee? All three said yes. Re-cue the panic. In 11 days, Florida and Ohio vote in winner-take-all contests. If Trump wins both, he’ll be well on his way to forcing Rubio, Cruz, and Kasich to make good on their promise.

Tom Bevan is the Co-Founder & Publisher of RealClearPolitics and the co-author of Election 2012: A Time for Choosing. Email: tom@realclearpolitics.com, Twitter: @TomBevanRCP

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