The tenor of the Republican presidential primaries reached what can only be described as a new low on Thursday night as Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz made their most passionate arguments yet against frontrunner Donald Trump. The tone of the Fox News debate was set within the first five minutes when Trump defended himself against Rubio’s assertion that he had small hands.
Holding his hands up to the camera, Trump insisted that they were of a normal size. “Look at those hands, are they small hands?” he asked. “He referred to my hands — ‘if they’re small, something else must be small.’ I guarantee you there’s no problem.”
For voters who hoped that the shrinking field would lead to a more substantive debate on policy, seeing the frontrunner defend the size of his manhood was undoubtedly a disappointment. Alas, the line ensured that the majority of the media coverage would again focus on Trump. Say what you will about him, the man knows how to keep the publicity train rolling.
Rubio, whose rhetoric took a sharp nosedive into the gutter in recent days, hammered Trump the entire night while keeping the invective relatively free from childishness.
“Two-thirds of the people who cast a vote in a Republican primary or caucus have voted against you,” Rubio told Trump. “The reason why is because we are not going to turn over the conservative movement or the party of Lincoln or Reagan, for example, to someone whose positions are not conservative.”
Cruz, who was once Rubio’s fiercest opponent on the debate stage, likewise kept his focus firmly fixed on Trump.
“For 40 years, Donald has been part of the corruption in Washington that you’re angry about,” Cruz said. “And you’re not going to stop the corruption in Washington by supporting someone who has supported liberal Democrats for four decades, from Jimmy Carter to John Kerry to Hillary Clinton.”
Ohio Governor John Kasich remained committed to a strategy of staying above the fray. But while he said he was proud of being called “the only adult in the room,” his low-key, moderate approach to conservatism has failed to capture much steam in a wild primary season.
Trump was forced to defend himself for much of the night, and you wouldn’t have to be a fan of his to notice that both the candidates and the moderators were clearly trying to destroy him. At one point, Megyn Kelly played a compilation of clips which showed Trump changing his positions on the Iraq war and Syrian refugees before asking him if he had any core beliefs.
“I have a very strong core, but I have never seen a successful person who wasn’t flexible,” Trump said.
Throughout the night, Rubio and Cruz hammered Trump on a variety of issues, including his Trump University lawsuit, his views on foreign policy, and his donations to liberal politicians. And while the basement-level, personal insults were largely absent, they both made it abundantly clear that they believed Trump was unfit for the presidency.
But their fierce opposition to Trump was somewhat undercut by the final question of the night. Asked by the moderators if they would support the eventual Republican nominee, even if it turned out to be Trump, Rubio and Cruz both said they would. If viewers turned off the debate wondering how Trump could be so bad if the other three candidates are pledging to support him, you couldn’t really blame them.