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Trump stumped in ugly Republican debate

Toronto Star logo Toronto Star 2016-03-04 David A. Fahrenthold - The Washington Post

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Billionaire Donald Trump struggled to explain his policy ideas — and his decision to make his Trump-branded clothing overseas, in spite of his calls to revive American manufacturing — as both the moderators and his rival candidates turned up the pressure on the front-runner in Thursday’s GOP debate.

At one point, after questions from moderator Chris Wallace, Trump appeared to promise that he would move that manufacturing to U.S. factories.

“I will do that,” he said.

“He’s not going to do it,” Sen. Marco Rubio said.

That set off a round of crosstalk and insults, with Trump saying to Rubio, “Don’t worry about it, little Marco.”

Wallace interrupted them, trying to bring order back to a debate that had already — even in its first half-hour — featured a joke about genitals, an insult about Trump Steaks, and candidates repeatedly interrupting one another. Even in this campaign, in which the insult has been the main currency of political discourse, this stood out as an ugly debate.

“You’ve got to do better than this,” Wallace said.

Rubio returned to a line of attack that he hoped — in vain — would sway voters before Super Tuesday, saying that Trump was a phony saviour. “He has spent a career convincing Americans that he’s something he’s not, in exchange for their money,” Rubio said. “Now he’s trying to do it in exchange for their country.”

Wallace himself had one of the most powerful moments of the early going, pressing Trump to explain a claim that he would save $300 billion (U.S.) from Medicare drug purchases, when the U.S. only spends $78 billion total on Medicare drug purchases. Trump seemed to dodge the question, despite Wallace’s repeated efforts to pin him down.

Thursday night’s Republican debate began with a question for billionaire front-runner Donald Trump. Earlier Thursday, Mitt Romney — the 2012 Republican presidential nominee — had called Trump a “phony,” and challenged Trump to campaign without insults. How did Trump respond?

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With an insult.

“Well, look, he was a failed candidate,” Trump said of Romney. “He failed miserably.”

That, it turned out, was the most high-minded portion of the early minutes of Thursday’s debate. Within its first 10 minutes, Trump had made what may have been the first reference — although a slightly veiled one — by a presidential debater to his or her own genitals.

“He hit my hands. Nobody has ever hit my hands,” Trump said, referring to Sen. Marco Rubio (Florida), who had indeed said that Trump’s hands were small in recent days, and intimated the same another part of Trump’s anatomy. Trump noted that: Rubio, he said, had implied “Something else must be small.”

Trump spoke to the national TV audience. “I guarantee you there’s no problem,” Trump said.

This debate was a particularly raucous one, with audiences booing and cheering the attacks between the candidate, and Trump and Rubio talking over each other.

Rubio, in a moment that was only slightly less unprecedented than Trump’s self-assessment, defended his strategy of personally attacking Trump. Effectively, he said Trump had started it.

“Donald Trump has basically mocked everybody with personal attacks,” Rubio said. “If there’s anyone who’s ever deserved to be attacked that way, it was Donald Trump.”

Also onstage was Sen. Ted Cruz (Texas) and Ohio Gov. John Kasich.

The debate, which is being televised on the Fox News Channel, began at 9 p.m. It is being held in Detroit, where voters there and across Michigan will vote in the state primaries on Tuesday.

Earlier in the day in a speech in Utah, Romney echoed a criticism that Rubio and Cruz have been making for a week: That Trump is a con artist, selling Americans on promises he can’t keep.

“Donald Trump is a phony, a fraud,” Romney said in a speech Thursday morning at the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics. “His promises are as worthless as a degree from Trump University. He’s playing the American public for suckers: He gets a free ride to the White House, and all we get is a lousy hat.”

Trump struck back within hours, with a personal cut-down of Romney — whom Trump had endorsed during the 2012 GOP primary. He called Romney a “choke artist” and a “failed candidate.”

“You can see how loyal he is,” Trump said. “He was begging for my endorsement. I could’ve said, ‘Mitt, drop to your knees,’ and he would’ve dropped to his knees. He was begging. True. True. He was begging me.”

Trump may also face questions about a Washington Post report, published Thursday afternoon, which found that Trump has only given away about half of the $6 million he said he’d raised for veterans’ groups during a fundraiser in Iowa in January.

Thursday’s debate comes at a crucial point in this entirely unexpected GOP primary. Trump dominated the primaries of Super Tuesday this week, and now he has a significant lead over his top rival, Cruz, in the race for Republican convention delegates.

But in a divided field, Trump has still won less than half of all the delegates awarded so far. That leaves his opponents with a viable — but risky and destructive — strategy. The only way to stop Trump from winning the nomination may be to stop anyone from winning it: dividing up the delegates so that no one has a majority.

Then, the theory goes, the party would head into a chaotic convention — the first true “floor fight” for any party in decades — and hope that a candidate other than Trump would emerge.

The front-runner is likely to come under furious attack from Cruz and Rubio, who have sought to portray Trump as untrustworthy. They frequently mention “Trump University,” which was not a school but a series of real-estate seminars and now is the subject of three lawsuits in which students say Trump bilked them with misleading promises.

Rubio and Cruz had given Trump a pass for months before turning on him at the last debate a week ago. A few days later, on Super Tuesday, Rubio said that those last-minute attacks had worked, and that they had cut into Trump’s leads in states such as Virginia.

The problem was that Trump still won Virginia and six other states.

Cruz, by contrast, won three of the states up for grabs that night. Rubio won just one.

In recent days, Trump has hit back against both of his top challengers, calling Rubio a “little senator” and calling Cruz a liar. He has also dismissed Romney, blaming him for the GOP’s 2012 loss to President Obama.

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