DETROIT — From the opening moments of the Republican debate, front-runner Donald Trump was forced Thursday night to defend himself against criticisms by the party’s previous nominee, assure voters that several of his enterprises were not failures or predatory, and even discuss his physical attributes.
In a series of heated exchanges with Senator Marco Rubio that quickly grew personal — with both candidates screaming indecipherably into their microphones — Trump repeatedly referred to the junior senator from Florida as “little Marco.”
“Don’t worry about it little Marco, don’t worry about it little Marco,” he said. “This guy has the number one absentee record in the United States! That’s why the people for Florida do not like him!”
Rubio defended his recent caustic attacks on Trump — including criticizing the size of Trump’s hands — by saying that the business mogul was the one who brought the race into the gutter.
“This campaign for the last year, Donald Trump has basically mocked everybody with personal attacks,” Rubio said. “If there’s anyone who ever deserved to be attacked that way, it’s Donald Trump.”
Trump then displayed both hands, bragging about their size. He also seemed to refer to his private parts, saying, “I guarantee you there’s no problem.”
“I don’t think the people of America are interested in a bunch of bickering schoolchildren,” said Senator Ted Cruz. “They’re interested in solutions.”
In contrast to the other three candidates sharing the stage, Governor John Kasich of Ohio relentlessly focused on policy over personal barbs, declining to criticize his opponents and saying the election was about to turn his way.
“You all wrote me off,” Kasich said. “It’s now March Madness and we’re moving up north to my turf.”
The debate — which followed an extraordinary back and forth earlier in the day between former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and Trump — comes at a pivotal moment for a Republican Party establishment that has been rocked by Trump’s dominance.
The mogul is now fending off attacks from all sides, with a newly mobilized establishment trying to take him down, with super PACs running a bevy of multimillion dollar negative ads, and with rival candidates desperate to change the dynamics of the race.
Yet there is no unifying force behind one candidate who could contest Trump. Rubio has at times shown flashes of potential in the debates but has only carried one state and is well behind Trump in polls of his home state of Florida.
Cruz has shown he can use an evangelical base to defeat Trump, but the Texas senator is reviled by establishment Republicans.
The party divisions — plus Trump’s boisterous personality and controversial rhetoric — have allowed the businessman to maintain his popularity despite the mud-slinging.
Trump, who has led in almost all national polls since the fall, has won 10 of the first 15 contests and has a large lead in the number of delegates needed to secure the nomination.
Cruz has emerged as one of his strongest rivals, with several Super Tuesday victories, including in his home state of Texas, that gave him a delegate boost.
Cruz attacked the businessman for his past dealings, saying that he’s not really an outsider, he’s part of the problem. He noted Trump donated numerous times to the Democratic front-runner.
“Donald Trump has written checks to Hillary Clinton not once, not twice, not three times — he’s written checks 10 times,” he Cruz.
“It was for business,” Trump explained. “It was. It was for business.”
The debate also brought a rematch between Trump and a trio of Fox News hosts that included Megyn Kelly.
Trump tussled with Kelly during the first GOP debate in August, and he has continued to claim that she has a bias against him, calling her a “lightweight” and a “bimbo.”
Just days before the Iowa caucuses, Trump boycotted a debate in Des Moines because Fox News would not accede to his demands that Kelly be removed. But after losing Iowa — and admitting his decision to skip the debate may have been one reason — Trump appeared on the debate stage here.
“Mr. Trump. Hi,” Kelly said about 30 minutes into the debate.
“Nice to be with you, Megyn,” Trump said. “You’re looking well.”
Kelly pressed Trump to direct The New York Times to release a tape from a Jan. 5 off-the-record meeting with editors of the paper.
Gail Collins, a Times columnist who attended the meeting, wrote recently that during the meeting Trump revealed he doesn’t actually believe many of the positions he takes, but instead his hardline views on issues represent an opening position for what he realizes would be a negotiation.
“The optimistic analysis of Trump as a presidential candidate is that he just doesn’t believe in positions, except the ones you adopt for strategic purposes when you’re making a deal,” Collins wrote.
Trump, during the debate, said he would not direct the paper to release the tape of the conversation because he has too much respect for the off-the-record agreement made with the Times.
“I think being off the record is a very important thing,” Trump said. “It’s a very powerful thing.”
Although journalists may agree to speak off-the-record, general practices would allow the information to become public if both sides agreed to it.
Trump also found himself on the defensive when Kelly walked through some of the civil litigation surrounding Trump University, a real estate training program he launched in 2005.
Kelly pointed out that a certified class of plaintiffs numbering about 5,000 people claim they were defrauded by the program, which offered to teach them the tricks to successful real estate investing but instead provided little instruction.
Rubio has seized on the program — and the litigation — as part of what he asserts is a dangerous pattern of behavior. “He’s trying to con people into giving him their vote, just like he conned these people in to giving them his money,” he said.
Trump dismissed the case as minor and encouraged viewers to take a long view and wait three years for the lawsuits to be resolved.
“Oh stop it,” he said. “It’s a minor civil case.”
Turning toward Rubio’s missed votes in the Senate, he said, “You defrauded the people of Florida, little Marco.”
Even at moments when substantive issues snuck into the debate, Trump, Cruz, and Rubio quickly batted them down.
Cruz took on a patronizing tone, sounding like an aggrieved father when he addressed Trump.
“Breathe, breathe, breathe,” Cruz said. “You can do it. You can breathe. I know it’s hard. I know it’s hard.”
Rubio jumped in: “When they’re done with the yoga, can I answer a question?”
Cruz shot back: “I really hope that we don’t see yoga on this stage.”
Rubio brought the conversation back to Trump: “Well, he’s very flexible,” Rubio said, referring to earlier remarks Trump had made extolling the benefits of changing one’s mind as a leader.
The biggest contests on the horizon are March 15 winner-take-all primaries in Rubio’s home state of Florida and Kasich’s home state of Ohio. Trump is currently leading in polls in both.
“We will go all-out, and I will win Ohio,” Kasich told reporters in a hotel conference room several hours before the debate. “If I win Ohio, then we’re probably going to go to a convention. It’s going to be the most exciting time.”
The harsh exchanges not notwithstanding, Rubio, Kasich, and Cruz declined to join Romney and several prominent politicians — including Governor Charlie Baker of Massachusetts — in their vow not to support Trump if he wins the nomination.
As the debate closed, every candidate said they would back him.
Matt Viser can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @mviser.