Donald Trump and three challengers with increasingly tougher odds of beating him for the Republican presidential nomination will face off in Detroit Thursday evening, hours after the party’s 2012 nominee delivered an unprecedented speech attacking the front-runner.
Mitt Romney’s extensive criticisms of the billionaire will be at the forefront as the debate convenes at 9 p.m. Eastern time in the state where Romney grew up. The former Massachusetts governor and private equity executive, in a deeply personal speech in Utah, said the front-runner lacks the temperament to be president and that “dishonesty is Donald Trump's hallmark.”
Trump fired back later at a campaign event in Maine that was interrupted several times by protesters. Trump called Romney a "choke artist" who has shown disloyalty after wooing his endorsement during the 2012 campaign.
"I could have said, 'Mitt, drop to your knees,'" Trump said of Romney's efforts to win his backing. "He doesn't have what it takes to be president."
Romney’s criticisms aside, Trump enters the field’s 11th debate with all the momentum. He won seven states and a bundle of delegates in Super Tuesday balloting, moving ever closer to winning the party’s nomination. His top rivals, Senators Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida, remain in desperate positions as they try to change the trajectory of the race.
“If Rubio and Cruz brought handguns to the last debate, they’ll show up this time with cannons,” said Dan Schnur, a veteran of past GOP presidential campaigns who is now director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California. “They are running out of time and they know it.”
The debate will be the first without Ben Carson, who on Wednesday said he doesn’t see a path forward for his candidacy and would skip the debate. The retired neurosurgeon hasn’t been much of a factor in recent debates, even jokingly begging at the last one on Feb. 25 for someone to attack him so he could get more speaking time.
Back on stage will be Megyn Kelly, questioning Trump for the first time since they clashed in an August debate over her questions about his derogatory comments about women. Trump called the inquiry unfair and afterward said Kelly appeared to have blood coming from her eyes and her “wherever.” After continued feuding with Fox News, Trump skipped the last debate the network hosted, which fell in Iowa a few days before the Feb. 1 caucuses he lost to Cruz.
Thursday’s gathering comes as the candidates sprint to the next major series of contests on March 15, and ahead of Saturday’s next round of voting in Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, and Maine.
“I’d expect a full opposition dump coming Donald Trump's way from the remaining candidates because they have to do what they can to slow his momentum,” said Rick Wiley, a Republican strategist who managed Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s failed presidential campaign. “Sadly, these debates have devolved into two hours of hurling accusations at one another, rather than a spirited policy discussion about the future of our country. The cage matches are good for ratings but bad for voters trying to make informed decisions.”
More broadly, the debate is likely to continue to showcase the Republican Party’s existential crisis over what the party stands for and whether it wants to be more inclusive. It’s a stew that’s been brewing for years that Trump has brought to a boil.
With the rest of the field in such a tenuous position, the front-runner is almost certain to again be the primary target, as he was a week ago.
In that debate, Rubio compared Trump to a sketchy sidewalk salesman in New York City, accused him of hypocrisy for hiring undocumented workers he now wants to deport, and ridiculed him for failing to outline much detail for what he wants to change in regard to health care policy. Cruz also joined in on the attacks, but Rubio led the charge.
Perhaps in response to being caught flat-footed in the last debate, Trump's campaign on Wednesday released a health care proposal that, among other things, calls for allowing imports of low-cost prescription drugs from outside the U.S., the repeal of Obamacare, and permitting tax deductions for individual health-care plans.
The debate will be an important one for Ohio Governor John Kasich as well. Since his second-place showing in New Hampshire’s primary on Feb. 9, he’s run a highly targeted campaign aimed at the Midwest, with an especially heavy focus on Michigan’s March 8 primary.
The bigger object on the horizon is March 15, when five large states will hold primaries. Those contests include Florida and Ohio, where Rubio and Kasich face enormous pressure to win at home or else fold their campaigns. Those states are also winner-take-all, so preventing Trump wins there would block him from harvesting 165 of the 1,237 delegates needed to win the nomination.
Rubio and Kasich winning their home states is part of a long-shot scenario that has been advanced by members of the Republican establishment who would rather see the delegate fight go all the way to the party’s national convention in Cleveland in July than to see Trump essentially win it in March or April.
The Floridian has serious work to do if he wants to beat Trump in his home state. A polling average compiled by RealClearPolitics.com shows Trump with a nearly 20-percentage-point lead there. In Ohio, Trump’s lead over Kasich is much smaller.
Before the last debate, Rubio’s team was coy about his plans, downplaying the prospects that he might take on Trump directly. But within the first few minutes, the junior senator from Florida launched an attack against the billionaire about his business dealings and more.
Rubio’s attacks against Trump have continued ever since, with the candidate completely dumping his pledge to be the sunny optimist in the campaign. At one point, he even questioned the size of Trump’s hands and, indirectly, his manliness.
“Rubio's criticisms were most effective when he focused on Trump's record,” Schnur said. “When he started talking about spray tans and the size of Trump's hands, he got into trouble. There's a difference between combative and childish.”
Debates held in the Detroit area have a recent history for damaging Republican presidential campaigns. Then-Texas Governor Rick Perry saw his campaign ambitions dashed there during a November 2011 debate when he couldn’t remember the name of the third government agency he’d pledged to eliminate as president. He named two, and then acknowledged he couldn’t remember the third. “I can’t. Sorry. Oops,” he said.