Rivals to Donald Trump will try to slow the real estate mogul’s momentum toward the Republican presidential nomination in the latest GOP debate, as the latest polls in a series of Super Tuesday states only seem to have swung in his favor.
There will be plenty of attention on Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, and whether they will aim more at each other than at Trump. In recent days Cruz has said “we can’t be fooled by P.T. Barnum,” while Rubio has highlighted Trump’s comments in support of aspects of Obamacare.
Meanwhile, John Kasich is trying to hang on as the moderate alternative, with hopes of winning his home state’s March 15 primary.
CNN and Telemundo are co-sponsoring the Thursday evening debate from Houston. This is so far the only debate sanctioned by the Republican National Committee on a Spanish-language broadcaster. Here’s a profile of one of the panelists, Telemundo’s Maria Celeste Arraras.
Follow along for the latest updates.
8:35 pm ET: 41. CNN’s Wolf Blitzer introduced former president George H. W. Bush, a Houston native, who is in the audience along with wife Barbara. It’s a bittersweet moment: This is the first debate this cycle Bush has attended, and it’s also the first debate without his son Jeb, who dropped out on Saturday.
8:45 pm ET: Hope and nope. Rubio gets in a ding at Trump, when he says that the identity of the Republican party is at stake in this election, saying that voters have to decide if the GOP is “a party that preys on people’s angers and fears.” But he also makes mention of the way that Ronald Reagan and George Bush transformed the party — for the better — in 1980. Hoping for a Jeb endorsement soon?
8:59 pm ET: Vs. Trump on immigration. Rubio and Cruz attack Trump on his signature issue — cracking down on illegal immigration. Rubio chides Trump for hiring foreign workers for his Mar-a-Lago resort, taking jobs that Americans could fill. “I have hired people,” Trump responded. “No one up here has hired anyone.” He says that the workers were needed to fill gaps in peak tourist season. He also slams Trump for being fined in the past for using illegal immigrants from Poland. Cruz, meanwhile, tries to use Trump’s celebrity status against him, noting that while he was fighting “amnesty” legislation in Congress, “Where was Donald? He was firing Dennis Rodman on ‘Celebrity Apprentice.'”
Trump also got in a dig at Mitt Romney, who has stirred the pot in the past day as he has wondered whether Trump’s tax returns contain a “bombshell.” Romney, Trump said, ran a “terrible campaign.” “He should have won.”
9:09 pm ET: See what sticks. In one exchange, Rubio threw out a potpourri of attacks against Trump. “If he hadn’t inherited $200 million, he’d be selling watches in Manhattan today.” Zinger! But he also mentions Trump’s tax returns, bankruptcies and the controversy over Trump University.
9:13 pm ET: Expanding the base. Arraras asks Rubio and Cruz how they expect to expand the Republican base if they are taking such a hardline on immigration. Cruz says that it’s a mistake to assume that Hispanic Americans are all liberals, while Rubio notes that “we have to move past this idea that the only thing that the Hispanic community cares about is illegal immigration.”
Arraras asks Kasich about the so-called “autopsy” report that the Republican National Committee did on the 2012 election, in which it warned about the party’s dwindling appeal to Hispanic voters if candidates are advocating mass deportation.
Kasich doesn’t really answer, but says that his “position on this immigration issue has been the same from the beginning.”
Ben Carson says that “real compassion” is economic opportunity.
9:20 pm ET. Telemundo poll. When Arraras cites a Telemundo poll that three of four Hispanics have a negative view of him, Trump responds, “First of all, I don’t believe anything Telemundo says.” He insists he will do well with Hispanics, that he loves them, that he’s hired them. He even cites his recent settlement of a lawsuit he had against Univision over the networks decision to drop the Miss Universe pageant. And, strangely enough, after a while he comes around on Telemundo. “They’re fine,” he says.
9:32 pm ET. Religious freedom. The candidates are asked about religious freedom, including the notion that a business owner will be forced to perform services for say, a same-sex couple, even though the owner may be religiously opposed to it. Kasich is the only candidate who is skeptical of the idea that same-sex marriage can be turned back. “The court has ruled, and I have moved on.” He also says that a business owner has to realize that they are offering services to the general public, not certain people over others. They could refuse service one day to a same-sex couple, and the next day to a divorced couple, he notes. “If you are in the business of commerce, conduct commerce.”
9:42 pm ET. Repeat Trump repeat. Rubio gets into a rather ingenious exchange with Trump, as Trump keeps reciting similar lines when pressed on details of his healthcare plan. “Now he’s repeating himself,” Rubio says, drawing huge applause in the room. Trump had just been talking about Rubio’s “implosion” at a debate three weeks ago, where Rubio had repeated himself in response to an attack from Chris Christie.
Trump tries to recover, at one time defending his refusal to offer more details about his healthcare plan as a matter of just telling the truth.
Rubio, though, keeps at it. “He says five things, everyone’s dumb, he’s going to make America great again. Win, win, win.”
9:48 pm ET. Twitter stats. According to Twitter, Trump is dominating Twitter conversation, about 51% versus 23% for Rubio and 14% for Cruz. Not that it is much of a surprise.
9:55 pm ET. Romney’s accusations. Trump is asked about Romney’s claim that there will be a “bombshell” in Trump’s tax returns. Trump claims that he is being audited. “Every year they audit me,” he says, adding that “I am being audited now for two or three years so I can’t do it until the audit is finished.” But when Hugh Hewitt presses him on the issue, Trump also gets in a dig on Hewitt’s show, saying that few people watch it.
Cruz and Rubio say that their returns will be released in the next few days.
10:05 pm ET. Trump University. Cruz has hammered Trump over a fraud lawsuit pending against Trump University. He raises the prospect that Trump will be called to testify in the summer, the implication being that such a spectacle would weaken him in a campaign against Hillary Clinton. Trump, though, dismisses the lawsuit as “an easy case” that he will win. But he is clearly a bit rattled by attacks from Rubio and Cruz over his tax returns. Again, he says he can’t release them because of an audit. “It is a very routine audit,” he says.
10:11 pm ET. “Neutral.” Trump is challenged on a comment he made that he would be “neutral” in the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Trump defends himself as “pro-Israel,” and says that “there is nothing I would rather do than bring peace to Israel and its neighbors generally.”
“It doesn’t do any good to start demeaning the neighbors,” Trump says.
Cruz seizes on Trump’s comments. “Both Donald and Hillary Clinton want to be neutral, to use Donald’s words, between Israel and the Palestinians,” accusing Trump of buying into liberal moral relativism.
Rubio says that “you can’t be neutral” because the Palestinian Authority has walked away from the negotiating table. “The Palestinians are not a real estate deal, Donald,” he says.
Trump says that he is a dealmaker, but Rubio shoots back, “A deal is not a deal when you are dealing with terrorists.”
10:18 pm ET. Romney’s response. Mitt Romney tweets, “No legit reason @realdonaldtrump can’t release returns while being audited, but if scared, release earlier returns no longer under audit.”
10:31 pm ET. Trump’s foreign policy. Trump once again slams President George W. Bush and his decision to invade Iraq, but also the Obama administration for its intervention in Libya. He says that the region would be a lot better off if Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi were still in charge and maintaining order.
Again, Cruz attacks Trump on Israel.
“There is no one on this stage who has done more for Israel than I have,” Trump says. He calls Rubio a “choke artist” and Cruz “a liar.” Carson, who has had little screen time, begs, “Can someone attack me, please?”
This inspires a rather juvenile exchange between the candidates, as they talk over one another. When Cruz tells Trump to “relax,” Trump responds, “I’m relaxed. You’re the basket case.”
10:37 pm ET. Apple. Trump last week said he would boycott Apple over their refusal to comply with a court order to assist the federal government in unlocking an iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino terrorists. Cruz and Rubio each say Apple should comply, with Cruz arguing that it would “not put a back door on everyone’s cell phone.” Rubio says Apple’s corporate identity shouldn’t supersede American security.
10:45 pm ET. Canadian wall. Trump says he’s concerned about the border with Canada, but that building a wall there would be infeasible.
10:53 pm ET. That’s it. Trump insists to CNN that he has “dealt with much tougher.” But more than any other debate, he had to defend previous statements, tax returns, Polish immigrant hiring, past support for Hillary Clinton, the works. He was on defense most visibly when it comes to the question of his tax returns and why he hasn’t released them. To Chris Cuomo afterward, Trump claimed that he was being audited because he is a “strong Christian.”
Rubio was much more effective than Cruz in attacking Trump, with a strategy of raising relentless numbers of questions about past Trump controversies, comments and inconsistencies. Will it work? Has anything worked against Trump? I have my doubts that the race will have changed all that much after this evening.
My favorite quote of the evening was from Ben Carson. “Years ago, a movie was made about these hands.” He was referring to a TV movie starring Cuba Gooding as Dr. Carson.