DETROIT — Picking up right where they left off, Donald Trump and Marco Rubio traded a new round of insults at the start of the 11th Republican presidential debate Thursday night, and then Trump made a crude sexual reference before the two pledged to try to focus more on policy.
Rubio justified his attacks on Trump by saying the billionaire businessman had “basically mocked everybody” over the past year. Trump countered with a feint, saying he’d called Rubio a “lightweight” in the past but “he’s really not that much of a lightweight.”
Trump then noted that Rubio had mocked his hands as small, widely viewed as an insult about Trump’s sexual prowess, and, holding his hands up to the audience, he declared, “I guarantee you, there’s no problem” in that area.
Pressed on why he hadn’t immediately disavowed David Duke and the Ku Klux Klan when first questioned about it, Trump said he “totally” disavows both.
Trump piled more insults, too, on the party’s 2012 presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, who earlier Thursday made a rare public appearance to denounce Trump as “a phony” who is “playing the American public for suckers.”
Trump dismissed Romney as “a failed candidate” and an “embarrassment.”
“Obviously, he wants to be relevant,” Trump said dismissively. “He wants to be back in the game.”
There were moments of policy debate Thursday night, but insults were woven throughout.
When Rubio faulted Trump’s businesses for manufacturing clothing in China and Mexico rather than the U.S., Trump retorted, “This little guy has lied so much about my record.”
Pressed on when he would start making more clothes in the U.S., Trump said that would happen when currency valuations weren’t biased against manufacturing garments in America.
Ted Cruz got into the mix, too, saying that while it’s easy to print campaign slogans on baseball caps, as Trump does, the question is whether Trump understands what made America great in the first place.
He labeled Trump part of the problem, not the solution, accusing Trump of being “someone who has used government power for private gain.”
“For 40 years, Donald has been part of the corruption in Washington” that people are angry about, Cruz said, citing Trump’s campaign contributions to leading Democrats, including then-Sen. Hillary Clinton.
Trump said it is simply business.
“I’ve supported Democrats and I’ve supported Republicans, and as a businessman I owed that to my company, to my family, to my workers, to everybody to get along,” he said.
With Ben Carson’s exit from the race this week, the field of Republican candidates has now been narrowed to four, including Texas Sen. Cruz and Ohio Gov. John Kasich.
But any number of predictions that GOP voters would unite behind one anti-Trump candidate have come and gone without a change in the overall dynamic.
Trump, with 10 state victories, continues to dominate the conversation and the delegate count.
Thursday’s debate, sponsored by Fox News, was the first time Trump faced his rivals since scooping up seven victories on Super Tuesday.
It was also the first time he faced questioning from Fox News’ Megyn Kelly since the two clashed in the first primary debate. That’s when Kelly’s tough questioning about Trump’s treatment of women blew up into a running argument between Fox and the candidate. Trump, who dismissed Kelly as a “lightweight” and a “bimbo,” ended up boycotting a subsequent Fox debate, claiming the network was unfair.
Trump signaled he was ready for a truce. When Kelly posed her first question to him, Trump told her “you’re looking well. You’re looking well.”
Trump has continued to pile up delegates during the long, and so far unsuccessful, effort to topple him.
He leads the field with 329 delegates. Cruz has 231, Rubio 110 and Kasich 25. It takes 1,237 delegates to win the Republican nomination for president.
© 2016 The Associated Press