- Billionaire pushes back on Rubio taunt about size of his hands
- All three Trump rivals say they would support him as nominee
Republican front-runner Donald Trump defended his manliness against a taunt from rival Senator Marco Rubio during the party’s 11th presidential debate, while also offering an unusually blunt admission that he’s willing to show "some flexibility" and negotiate over the highly charged topic of immigration.
Signaling moderation as he eyes a potential general election campaign, the billionaire real estate mogul said he was altering his position on visas for highly skilled workers that are prized by the technology community.
"I’m changing. I’m changing," he said. "We need highly skilled people in this country."
On his campaign website, Trump calls for "enhanced penalties for overstaying a visa." Asked if he was contradicting what he had on his site, he said, "I’m changing it, and I’m softening the position, because we have to have talented people in this country."
Trump was joined on a stage in Detroit by three rivals facing increasingly tougher odds of beating him for the nomination, even as they showed they’re gradually learning how to go toe-to-toe with the former reality television star by having their own insults prepared to throw at him in response to his attacks.
Yet in the final question of a debate filled with attacks on Trump’s fitness to be president, all three of Trump’s rivals said they would support him if he were the Republican nominee.
The debate capped a day that began with an unprecedented speech attacking the front-runner delivered by the 2012 Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, in what was the highest-profile effort yet by establishment Republicans to try to change the trajectory of the race. Romney said a Trump presidency would be disastrous for the party and for America.
During the debate, Trump’s willingness to shift his position on immigration posed some risk. He has won over large swaths of the Republican base with a hard-line stance on illegal immigration, including calling for a ban on all Muslims entering the country and for building a massive wall at the Mexican border.
Yet with a sizable lead in delegates and strong poll numbers in upcoming contests, Trump has begun to turn toward the November campaign, moderating some of his positions to appeal to independents and even some moderate Democrats.
Immediately following the debate, Trump issued a statement seeming to distance himself from his earlier openness to expanding the highly skilled visa system, also known as the H-1B program, a subject of criticism on the right. "I remain totally committed to eliminating rampant, widespread H-1B abuse," he said, vowing to "end forever the use of the H-1B as a cheap labor program, and institute an absolute requirement to hire American workers first for every visa and immigration program. No exceptions."
His admission on immigration left Trump briefly on the defensive in the debate. After a series of past interviews of Trump were played where he took different positions on a variety of issues, the businessman insisted he’s a solid conservative.
“I have a very strong core,” he said. “But I’ve never seen a successful person who wasn’t flexible, who didn’t have a certain degree of flexibility.”
The immigration discussion marked a turn to substance after the debate started with Trump pushing back on Rubio’s mocking of the size of his hands, and, indirectly, his manhood.
"Look at those hands. Are they small hands?" he asked, holding up his hands. "If they’re small, something else must be small. I guarantee you there is no problem."
Trump repeatedly called Rubio "little Marco,” as the two continued their heated exchanges that started a week ago at the last debate.
"He has spent a career convincing Americans he is something he’s not in exchange for their money," Rubio fired back. "Now, he’s trying to do the same in exchange for their country."
Trump pointed to polls in Florida showing him well ahead of Rubio ahead of that state’s key March 15 primary. “The people of Florida can’t stand him," Trump said of Rubio. "He couldn’t get elected dog catcher.”
Senator Ted Cruz of Texas in particular attacked Trump on immigration, pressing him to allow the New York Times to release a recording of an off-the-record conversation with the newspaper’s editorial board involving immigration policy. Cruz alleged that Trump told the newspaper that he was flexible when it comes to immigration, and Trump responded by calling Cruz "lying Ted."
Trump said he wouldn’t seek release of the conversation because he values the ability to go "off-the-record" to explain himself to journalists, and said his rivals do the same. "I would not do that,” he said of asking the Times to release the recording. “I have too much respect for that process.”
Cruz also suggested that the front-runner is offering more marketing than substance in his campaign pronouncements. "It’s easy to say ’make things better -- make things great,’" he said. "He even printed and put it on a baseball cap. The question is, do you understand the principles that made America great in the first place?"
Ohio Governor John Kasich didn’t deny that he’s essentially campaigning to try to force a brokered Republican National Convention in July.
"We’re all really there," he said. "We’re heading up north to my turf, and let me just tell you this: I will win Ohio."
Rubio also hit Trump on his so-called Trump University. Earlier this week, a New York appeals court ruled that a lawsuit involving the program could move forward. Filed by the state attorney general in 2013, the action claims Trump’s defunct for-profit school defrauded consumers and bilked students of roughly $40 million.
"He’s trying to do to the American people what he did to the people who signed up for this course," Rubio said. "He’s trying to con people into giving them their vote."
Cruz also hit the front-runner over the Trump University allegations, as well as his past coziness with Hillary Clinton, the Democratic front-runner.
“Is this the debate you want playing out in the general election?” Cruz asked. "If we nominate Donald, we’re going to spend the fall and the summer with the Republican nominee facing a fraud trial and Hillary Clinton saying, "Why did you give to my campaign and my foundation?’"
Trump also pushed back at a string of attacks earlier in the day from Romney. "He should have beaten President Obama very easily," Trump said of Romney’s 2012 loss. "He’s an embarrassment to everybody -- including the Republican Party."
Trump insisted that Romney made his attacks because he "wants to be relevant" and "get back in the game."
The critique of Trump by the former Massachusetts governor was timed just ahead of the debate held in a state where the Romney name is well known, where he grew up and where a key primary will be held Tuesday. Romney’s father, George, was a three-term governor in Michigan during the 1960s and onetime chairman of the now defunct American Motors Corp., and a pioneer of small, fuel-efficient cars, most notably the Rambler.
The day’s events illustrated the Republican party’s existential crisis that pits establishment conservatives like Romney against populist outsiders like Trump.
It’s a stew that’s been brewing for years that Trump has brought to a boil.
Trump entered the debate with all the momentum. He won seven of 11 states and a bundle of delegates earlier this week in Super Tuesday balloting, moving ever closer to winning the party’s nomination.
Thursday’s gathering took place just days before the candidates face nominating contests Saturday in Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, and Maine, followed by Michigan and Mississippi on Tuesday and March 15 primaries in Florida, Illinois, Missouri, North Carolina and Ohio.
The debate was the first without Ben Carson, who on Wednesday said he doesn’t see a path forward for his candidacy and that he would skip the gathering.
Back on stage as part of a panel of moderators was 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."
"Nice to be with you, Megyn," Trump said, as she asked her first question. "You’re looking well."
-- With assistance from Terrence Dopp, Kevin Cirilli, David Knowles and Sahil Kapur