HOUSTON (CBSNewYork/AP) — Donald Trump’s rivals shot barbs in his direction in the last presidential debate before Super Tuesday, even presenting him as too soft on issues such as immigration and perhaps not sufficiently conservative.
Trump began the debate by proclaiming, as he often has, that the country no longer “wins.”
“We don’t win anymore as a country. We don’t win with trade. We don’t win with the military… we don’t win in any capacity with health care,” Trump said, later adding, “You look at our borders, they’re like Swiss cheese, everybody pours in.”
Trump‘s grasp on the Republican presidential nomination has been tightening. But rivals Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, up until Thursday, showed little willingness to take on the former reality television star when the national spotlight shone brightest.
That changed in a major way on Thursday night.
Indeed, the debate was almost immediately transformed into a Texas-sized rumble with Texas-sized zingers, as CBS2’s Jessica Schneider reported.
First, Cruz accused Trump – as well as Rubio – of being soft on immigration. Cruz took aim at Trump’s policy of letting some immigrants back in after all the undocumented immigrants are ejected from the country – provided that they were vetted and reentered legally.
Rubio then turned on Trump, accusing him of hiring illegal workers on one of his projects, which Trump quickly dismissed.
“I’m the only one on this stage that’s hired people,” he told Rubio. “You haven’t hired anybody.”
Cruz also claimed that he was the one with the real record on fighting illegal immigration, noting that when he was fighting “amnesty” legislation: “Where was Donald? He was firing Dennis Rodman on ‘Celebrity Apprentice.’”
Trump fired back at Cruz, saying the senator is unpopular among his own colleagues.
“You get along with nobody. You don’t have a single Republican senator backing you, not one…. You should be ashamed of yourself,” Trump said to Cruz.
Cruz responded that someone who is popular in Washington is exactly the wrong kind of person to be president.
Trump then likened Cruz to Robin Hood and reminding the audience that Cruz failed to disclose about $1 million in past campaign loans from Wall Street banks.
Trump was later asked about remarks by former Mexican President Vicente Fox about Trump’s demand that Mexico pay for a wall on the southern U.S. border. Fox has been quoted as saying, “I declare, I’m not going to pay for that f***ing wall.”
Trump replied: “I will, and the wall just got 10 feet taller, believe me…. I saw him make the statement. I saw him use the word that he used. I can tell you that if I only even used half of that word, it would have been national scandal. This guy used a filthy, disgusting word on television and he should apologize.”
Trump claimed that the U.S. is losing $58 billion a year to Mexico – not including the cost of the illegal drug trade. When asked by CNN’s Wolf Blitzer if he would start a trade war with Mexico if the government there refused to finance the border wall, Trump said, “I don’t mind trade wars when we’re losing $58 billion a year.”
But Rubio accused Trump of being hypocritical in his position against illegal immigration.
“If he builds the wall the way he built Trump Towers, he’ll be using illegal immigrant labor to do it,” Rubio said.
And when Trump faulted Rubio on a deal to buy a $179,000 house, the Florida senator shot back that if Trump “hadn’t inherited $200 million, you know where Donald Trump would be right now? Selling watches in Manhattan.”
Trump was later confronted with the fact that even though he won the Hispanic vote in the Nevada Republican caucus, a new Telemundo poll shows that three out of four Hispanics voting nationwide have a negative opinion of him.
“I don’t believe anything Telemundo says,” Trump said, adding that he has employed tens of thousands of Hispanics.
“They know I’m going to bring jobs back from China, from Japan, from so many other places,” he said.
Later in the debate, panelist Hugh Hewitt asked Cruz whether he trusted Trump to nominate conservatives to the Supreme Court. Cruz responded that he himself would do so, restricting his selections to nominees who would uphold religious liberty, the Second Amendment, and “life.”
Cruz said Republicans have a poor track record when it comes to nominating Supreme Court justices.
“More than half the people we’ve put on the court have been a disaster,” Cruz said.
But Trump accused Cruz of backing a chief justice who had not stuck by conservative principles.
“Justice Roberts was strongly recommended and pushed by Ted. Justice Roberts gave us Obamacare – might as well be called Robertscare,” Trump said.
But Cruz went on to claim that Trump might cut a deal that could result in a Supreme Court justice who did not stick to a strict constructionist interpretation of the Constitution and could chip away at religious liberty or gun rights. He suggested that Trump would consider a candidate of unwavering conservative principles a “crazy zealot.”
“When you say crazy zealot are you talking about you, crazy zealot?” Trump fired back.
But Rubio ran with the theme that Trump perhaps could not be trusted to maintain conservative policies.
“Very recently, he was still defending Planned Parenthood,” Rubio said.
Trump responded that people can change, noting that Ronald Reagan had gone from being a “somewhat liberal” Democrat to a strongly conservative Republican.
And while he said he would defund Planned Parenthood as president because he is against abortion, he did speak a few words in the organization’s defense.
“Millions and millions of women – cervical cancer, breast cancer – are helped by Planned Parenthood,” Trump said.
The candidates were later asked one-by-one about Obamacare, but when Blitzer said it was time to move on, Cruz asked, “Does everybody get to address Obamacare but me?”
Cruz went on to accuse Trump of being a defender of “socialized medicine,” and said he himself would “repeal every word” of Obamacare.
Trump said the Affordable Care Act “has to be repealed for a lot of reasons” given the rising premiums and the threat of “destroying our economy.”
But Cruz accused Trump of being in favor of the government funding health care for everyone. Trump said he did not support any such thing, but he also did not support people being left behind.
“We’re going to have private health care, but I will not allow people to die on the sidewalks and streets in our country if I’m president,” Trump said to Cruz. “You may let it. You may be fine with it.”
Cruz further accused Trump of saying Hillary Clinton was the best secretary of state of all time, agreeing with Clinton on foreign policy, and agreeing with Bernie Sanders on health care. He further said Trump would go on to lose to Clinton.
But Trump noted that he was outpolling Cruz in “virtually every poll,” and he was even tied in Cruz’s home state of Texas. He said he was beating Trump so badly that it was “embarrassing, even for me to say.”
“If I can’t beat (Clinton), you’re really going to get killed, aren’t you?” Trump said to Cruz.
Trump further came under fire for putting up resistance to his tax returns. He said the audit he was under was “routine.”
“I want to release my tax returns. I can’t release it while I’m under an audit. We’re under a routine audit. I’ve had it for years, I get audited,” Trump said.
And the attempts to paint Trump as a defender of the liberal side of politics went on throughout the debate.
“For 40 years, he’s been funding liberal politicians,” Cruz said.
“I funded you,” Trump fired back.
They later began talking over each other – and over Blitzer – after Cruz said, “Donald, relax.”
“I’m relaxed. You’re the basket case,” Trump replied.
The ninth Republican debate of the presidential campaign took place just a few days before 11 states hold GOP elections that will either cement Trump’s dominance — or let his rivals slow his march to his party’s presidential nomination.
Trump won Nevada’s presidential caucuses on Tuesday with more than 45 percent of the vote, scoring his third consecutive primary victory in dominant fashion. Rubio edged out Cruz for runner-up for the second consecutive race, with Ohio Gov. John Kasich and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson far off the pace.
Carson complained more than once about the lack of attention he received during the debate.
“I’m going to whine, because I didn’t get asked about taxes. I didn’t get asked about Israel,” Carson said.
He went on to say the IRS is “not honest” and must be done away with, and said Israel thought the U.S. had turned its backs.
At one point, Carson even quipped, “Can somebody attack me, please?”
For his part, Kasich touted his own record of turning his state’s budget deficit into a surplus. Kasich says he did it not only through budget cuts as rival Donald Trump has proposed, but also through economic diversification.
Speaking at Thursday’s Republican debate in Texas, Kasich said that if elected president, he would bring to Washington a range of industries to spur economic growth and generate “jobs, jobs, jobs” within the first 100 days in office.
Trump pointed out that much of Kasich’s successes have been due to oil discoveries in his home state.
But Kasich defended his record, dismissing the idea that a single-industry can lead to economic growth.
Following the debate, Trump fired back at Rubio for going after him during the debate.
“He’s a meltdown guy. I mean I’m looking at him, he’s pouring sweat, I’ve never seen anything like it. I don’t know what the problem is. But he’s just pouring down sweat. We have to have somebody that doesn’t sweat. … We need somebody that doesn’t have whatever that is that he’s got,” Trump told CNN.
Trump also said one of the reasons the IRS is auditing him might be because he’s a “strong Christian.”
While his son, Jeb Bush, has now dropped out of the race, former president George H.W. Bush, 91, and his wife, Barbara, were in attendance at the debate.
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