Cruz, Rubio take their best shots at Trump
Campaign 2016 | The GOP front-runner stood center stage for Thursday night’s debate, but his rivals got the most attention
by Laura Finch
Posted 2/26/16, 01:25 am
Thursday night’s Republican debate at the Moores Opera House in Houston, Texas, delivered plenty of the drama Americans have come to expect this primary season. Hosted by CNN, Telemundo, the Salem Radio Network, and the Republican National Committee, the debate featured the five remaining Republican candidates for president: retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, businessman Donald Trump, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, and Ohio Gov. John Kasich. The debate was especially significant as the last to take place before “Super Tuesday,” when 11 states will hold GOP primaries and caucuses.
With Trump continuing to surge following decisive victories in South Carolina, Nevada, and New Hampshire, Cruz and Rubio needed a strong showing to slow the front-runner’s momentum. But the laundry list of Trump’s faults hasn’t seemed to matter to primary voters so far, not even to evangelicals.
And hours before the debate started, a former Klu Klux Klan member and radio host told his listeners voting for Trump was strategic and voting against him would be “treason against your heritage,” a swipe at Cuban-Americans Rubio and Cruz.
On Thursday, Trump stood center stage—literally and figuratively—as other candidates, especially Rubio, showed more courage in taking their best shots against him.
CNN moderator Wolf Blitzer spent nearly an hour on the topic of immigration to start the debate, noting Texas, where immigration is a crucial topic, will be “the biggest prize” next week on Super Tuesday. Rubio repeatedly reminded viewers that Trump was the only one on stage to have hired undocumented workers. The New York business mogul is in the midst of a civil suit over treatment of Polish workers during the construction of Trump Tower. Rubio pledged to address border security and visa overstays, which are “45 percent of the problem.”
Cruz noted that while he worked on the immigration issue in the Senate, Trump was busy donating money to border politicians in the “Gang of Eight” and firing Dennis Rodman from The Apprentice.
Kasich cited his work with former President Ronald Reagan on the immigration issue and said a guest-worker plan would be the most practical solution.
When directly asked by Blitzer how he would make Mexico pay for a wall in the absence of a check from its government, Trump said, “I will, and it just got 10 feet taller.” Trump also noted the Great Wall of China was constructed 2,000 years ago and stretches for 13,000 miles. But later, when prodded by moderator Maria Celeste Arras of Telemundo, he said a wall along the Canadian border wouldn’t be feasible because its border with the United States is four times as long as Mexico’s (it’s actually about three times as long).
Cruz also took aim at Trump during questions about the U.S. Supreme Court. The last Republican debate took place on Feb. 13, right after the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. Cruz, who clerked for former Chief Justice William Rehnquist, said he had known Scalia for 20 years and promised total commitment to nominating a new justice who would “bat 1.000” rather than .500, as he claims the current conservative justices are doing.
“Nobody who supports far-left liberal Democrats can possibly care about having principled constitutionalists on the Supreme Court,” Cruz said of Trump. “He’ll just cut a deal.”
Salem Radio host Hugh Hewitt caught audience attention when he asked Kasich if Republicans could trust him to protect religious liberty, citing his recent comment drawing a distinction between churches and other service providers who decline to participate in same-sex weddings.
Kasich said earlier this week, “if you’re a cupcake maker and somebody wants a cupcake, make them a cupcake.” In Thursday night’s debate, he doubled down on that position.
“If you’re in the business of commerce, conduct commerce,” he said. “If you don’t agree with their lifestyle, say a prayer for them when they leave and hope they change their lifestyle.”
Hewitt also reminded Trump about past comments that could come back to haunt him. A year ago on Hewitt’s radio show, Trump promised to release his tax returns to the public. The issue made news again on Wednesday when former GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney called on Trump to provide the documents soon.
Cruz promised to release his tax forms tomorrow and Rubio on Saturday, but Trump said he can’t because he’s currently under a “routine audit.” During the debate, Romney dismissed the claim on Twitter, saying Trump had “no legit” reason not to release the forms. But if he feared the consequences, Romney suggested Trump release whatever earlier tax forms aren’t part of the audit.
Perhaps proving he’s not worried about offending a large part of the constituency he’s depending on to carry him to the White House, Trump repeated his belief that Planned Parenthood helps “millions and millions of women” through cervical and breast cancer screenings. But he repeated promises to defund the organization “because of the abortion factor, because I’m pro-life.”
Of all the candidates, Rubio seemed to have the most fun Thursday night. At one point he said Trump views Palestine as a real estate deal, and at another jokingly listed off some of Trump’s favorite phrases—“Everyone’s dumb; we’re going to make America great again; win, win, win”—much to the delight of those on Twitter.
Although reporters and social media users were quick to “fact-check” Trump’s statements, just a few critics matter now: The ones heading to the polls on March 1.
Laura is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute's mid-career course.