After 10 debates spent attacking each other, underdog Republicans on Thursday finally focused virtually all their collective fire on Donald Trump, the Republican presidential front-runner who was savaged by the last Republican nominee just hours earlier in a dramatic broadside.
Marco Rubio, who has spent the last week torching Trump as a “con artist,” dismissed his immigration and foreign policies as unserious. Ted Cruz slammed the numerous checks Trump’s written to boost Hillary Clinton's political career. They both decried Trump University, the subject of ongoing lawsuits, and his bullying debate tactics.
Then, in the closing moments, having succeeded in attacking Trump's political and business record more than in any other previous debate, the remaining candidates agreed they'd fully support Trump if he became the party's nominee. In doing so, they delivered a striking blow to a movement of Republican elites seeking to reject Trump under any circumstances.
“I'd support Donald if he's the Republican nominee,” said Rubio, a Florida senator.
Cruz, a Texas senator, also answered in the affirmative: “Yes, because I gave my word that I would, because what I have endeavored to do every day in the Senate is do what I said I would do.”
Ohio Governor John Kasich looked back on the messy race, and then agreed. “Sometimes he makes it a little bit hard, but you know, I will support whoever is the Republican nominee for president,” he said.
In a debate that featured juvenile one-liners and taunts such as “Little Marco” and “Big Donald,” as well as a defense by Trump about the size of his penis, the final question crystallized the emerging reality that Trump is the odds-on favorite to win the nomination.
Earlier Thursday, 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney gave a speech blasting Trump as a “fraud” who must be defeated, floating a strategy to starve Trump of delegates and block him at what would be a bitter fight at the July convention. The strategy depends on Rubio winning his home state of Florida and Kasich claiming victory in his home state of Ohio—both states vote on March 15—and for three candidates to keep picking up delegates and block Trump's path to the 1,237 delegates he needs to clinch the nomination.
“After March 15, I think you’ll see it narrow down to one or two contenders opposing Donald Trump and I intend to support one of them,” Romney said Friday on NBC.
In between is the Michigan primary on March 8. Speaking in the state Friday, Trump tailored his message to voters affected by upheaval in the auto industry. Mexico is becoming the “car capital of the world,” Trump said. “I want those cars made in Michigan.”
The debate pledges by Rubio, Cruz, and Kasich leave room for them to push for a contested convention, which numerous Republicans believe is their only chance block Trump from the nomination. But their promises mean that if Trump emerges victorious, they're obliged to support him in the general election against the Democratic nominee.
After the debate, Rubio spokesman Alex Conant reiterated that Rubio would support Trump if he's the nominee. “But he's not going to be, and we will win Florida,” Conant said. The Florida primary is seen as a must-win for Rubio, who's a distant third in the delegate race.
When asked if the pledge to support Trump if he's the nominee will undercut their attacks, Representative Justin Amash of Michigan, a Cruz surrogate, said: “It may. But at the end of the day, these candidates pledged to support the nominee at the beginning of this race. And I think it's honorable of them to live up to their commitments.”
Rubio acknowledged Friday on CNN that the Trump situation is a “quandary,” but his rationale for why he'd support Trump was quite simple: the alternative would be the Democrats. That raises the question as to how many other Trump foes in the GOP will remain loyal to the party if he's declared the nominee.
“The Democrats have two people left in the race. One of them is a socialist,” Rubio said during the debate, referring to Bernie Sanders. “The other one is under FBI investigation. And not only is she under FBI investigation, she lied to the families of the victims of Benghazi. And anyone who lies to the families of victims who have lost their lives in the service of our country can never be a commander in chief of the United States.”
The crowd applauded and cheered.
—With assistance from Kevin Cirilli in Detroit and Kasia Klimasinska and Elizabeth Wasserman in Washington.