First, Donald Trump attacked former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney for being a “failed candidate.” Then he turned to “little” Marco Rubio. He angrily listed his recent wins and poll standings. Somewhere in there, he tossed in a “lyin’ ” Ted Cruz.
The only person he didn’t attack was Fox News’s Megyn Kelly – whom he famously lit into at a debate in August and with whom he had sparred for months.
Following his big wins Tuesday night, which put him in a commanding position for the Republican nomination, this might have been the night when Trump could safely shift into statesman mode, acting like a presumed nominee instead of a candidate.
Instead, Trump was under sustained grilling – from Rubio, Cruz, the Fox moderators, even Ohio Gov. John Kasich – like never before.
He took the stage with a tight smile and a wave that turned into a thumbs-up. His wife had warned him not to get too nasty in his attacks, to act “presidential,” but Trump said he responded: “When you have incoming, you can’t be too presidential.”
The opening question of the debate forced Trump to again respond to Romney’s accusations that the country would suffer with him as president – namely his domestic policy would lead to a recession and his foreign policy would make the country less safe. Romney also listed off Trump’s personal qualities, which the moderator rattled off as Trump frowned.
“The bullying,” Fox’s Chris Wallace said, as the crowd cheered. “The greed. The showing off. The misogyny. The absurd, third-grade theatrics.”
“Well look, he was a failed candidate,” Trump said. “He should have beaten President Obama very easy. He failed miserably, and it was an embarrassment to everybody, including the Republican Party.”
Trump quickly pivoted to talking about trade and how he would improve it as president, but Wallace brought him again back to Romney’s attacks, asking Trump to share his views on the Ku Klux Klan and white supremacists.
Trump disavowed the KKK (twice) and its former leader, but then he slammed the media for continuing to bring this question up.
On a day when most candidates lock themselves away with top aides for a final round of debate prep, Trump started his by calling into the morning shows to preempt an expected attack from Romney – and then he flew to Maine to hold a rally where he could counterattack Romney while getting some face time with voters ahead of the state’s contest on Saturday.
The Romney attack hit Trump differently from those before it, and he responded as if he had been deeply personally hurt and offended. Trump has repeatedly said that he got into the race because Romney let him down by losing, and he decided he would rather win an election and run the White House himself than trust anyone else to do it.
At the Maine rally, Trump said that Romney begged him for an endorsement in 2012 and “would have dropped to his knees” if Trump had asked him to do so. Trump said he then recorded robo-calls for Romney and hosted a fundraiser for the “stiff” that attracted so much attention that he had to host two sessions on a rainy day.
“Everybody’s shoes were so wet, I ruined my carpet,” Trump said in disbelief at the rally. “This carpet was wiped out, and nobody thanked me for the carpet. Hey: Maybe I can send Mitt a bill for carpet ruined.”
At the debate, nearly every question, including those that went to other candidates, put Trump on the defensive. He mocked his rivals, talked over them as they answered questions and even assured the crowd that he doesn’t have small hands – as Rubio has said.
The Fox News moderators came prepared with questions that seemed to be written with Trump’s expected answers in mind, along with full-screen graphics showing that Trump’s proposed budget cuts will not yield nearly as much money as he has promised.
Cruz and Rubio, who in previous debates had gone after each other, both locked on Trump instead. They pushed him for specifics on his policy proposals and reprimanded him for his personal attacks. Rubio said that someone who doesn’t answer questions can’t be president, while Cruz said that the “stakes are too high” for Trump to be put in the White House.
Trump had to defend his business deals – Trump University, which is caught up in lawsuits alleging fraud; Trump’s clothing line, some of which is made in other countries; Trump’s Florida resorts, which hire foreign workers during the busiest season instead of hiring locals.
But Trump seemed to become most agitated when Cruz and Rubio implied that the billionaire couldn’t win the nomination or the election. It was an attack that just didn’t seem to make sense to Trump.
“Our campaign is the only campaign that over and over again has beaten Donald Trump to date,” Cruz said, “and it’s why we are the one campaign that going forward can and will beat Donald Trump in this election.”
Trump responded: “Just for the record, I have won 10 [states]. He has won three or four. Last week, in fact, on Tuesday, I was a half a million votes higher than him. I was a million votes higher than Marco, 1 million votes. That’s a lot of votes. And was by far in first place.”
Rubio then jumped in and said that two-thirds of Republicans who have voted in the caucuses or primaries voted against Trump.
“They do not want you to be our nominee,” Rubio said, saying that voters want a more conservative candidate.
Trump tried listing off his latest national poll numbers. He and Rubio tried one-upping each other.
“I beat Hillary Clinton,” Trump thundered over the back and forth. “I beat Hillary Clinton in many polls.”
“She will wipe you out,” Rubio countered.
“I beat Hillary Clinton in many polls,” Trump repeatedly said.”I beat Hillary Clinton in a recent Fox poll, I beat Hillary Clinton in USA Today, I beat her today in a poll in Ohio. I beat – I’m the only one that beats Hillary Clinton.”
Later, Cruz jumped in to point out, correctly, that Trump, in fact, trails Clinton by eight points in one of the polls he cited.