Two days after Republican frontrunner Donald Trump dominated Super Tuesday, his rivals have had a chance to go after his record at the latest presidential debate in Detroit, in the US state of Michigan.
The event on Thursday night came after the Republican establishment stepped up efforts against Trump, with former Republican candidate Mitt Romney delivering a scathing assessment of the billionaire businessman’s campaign.
Al Jazeera’s Alan Fisher, who has been following the Republican candidates, delivers his assessment of the debate.
TED CRUZ: This was perhaps the Texas senator’s best performance. He refused to get involved in trading personal insults with Trump, even when he was called a liar. He used his expert debating skills and his legal background to make the argument he has been repeating on the campaign trail, that Trump is neither a true conservative, nor well placed to defeat any Democrat in the presidential election.
He also repeatedly demanded that Trump release details of an “off the record” conversation with The New York Times editorial board discussing immigration. Trump repeatedly refused. He was largely missing from the first part of the debate, but it is not likely to harm him as that was when Trump and Rubio were brawling.
JOHN KASICH: In any other election year, the Ohio governor would be right in the mix for the nomination. He talks about straddling the political divide in the US; he makes the case that experience in Washington is a good thing, not something to be despised and he lifts himself above the name-calling and abuse. But he looks at the polls and sees he is still struggling with the voters. When he spoke, there was a calm assurance, a belief that he is in command of the facts and the issues. The smaller field gives him more time and that is surely to his benefit. But he has hung his whole campaign now on winning his home state of Ohio. And the polls still put him behind Trump there.
MARCO RUBIO: The Florida senator has clearly decided that being the attack dog works well for him in the polls. He began this new strategy 10 days ago and found that late-breaking voters, those who made up their minds at the last minute, voted for him in a number of states on Super Tuesday. He turned almost every question into an attack on Trump, interrupted him at every opportunity and gave a running commentary on a lot of his answers. He clearly stung Trump, who became louder and visibly angry after the attacks. But every moment talking about Trump was time lost articulating his ideas for the country. He will remain the establishment’s choice to take down Trump, but it becomes increasingly difficult to see where he gets his next win.
DONALD TRUMP: Yet another debate that was all about the businessman. He took on most of the attacks and dominated the airtime. He also hit a new low in political debates when he responded to attacks on the size of his hands from Rubio, telling the crowd they were normal: “Look at those hands. Are they small hands? And he referred to my hands, if they’re small something else must be small. I guarantee you there’s no problem, I guarantee”. And if you think he can’t be talking about what you think he is talking about. He was.
Trump struggled in many parts of this debate. He struggled when attacked about his business school “Trump University”, which is now facing extensive legal action; he came under assault for his tax plan from the moderators who said his figures “don’t add up” and when he insisted the military would not and could not refuse his orders to carry out torture, even though they would be legally obligated not to.
But what would have been the worst moment for any other politician turned into Trump’s best. When confronted with several flip-flops on issues and policy, sometimes within hours, he played the pragmatist card. He said when new information became available it was important to reassess and move on. And in that moment, he summed up what many people feel is wrong with US politics; that dogma and political purity is more important than getting things done. And that is why he is leading in the race.
If Rubio and Cruz hoped to blunt Trump’s momentum, it doesn’t look like they succeeded.
There was a moment when for 20 seconds or more, Trump and Rubio bickered on stage, shouting over one other, calling each other names, “Little Marco” and “Big Donald”.
It must have been difficult to watch if you were a Republican.
And the abuse and the confrontations will provide endless fun for those pulling together attack ads later on in the campaign.
And that is why tonight’s biggest winner might just have been the Democrats.