With his rivals growing desperate to throw him off stride, and his candidacy revealing a deep and possibly irreparable schism inside the Republican Party, Trump responded to a Marco Rubio critique by going...big.
“He said if my hands are small, something else must be small,” Trump said at Thursday night’s debate. “I guarantee you there is no problem. I guarantee you.”
No one can guarantee that the very many lines of attack on Trump -- some of which gained new currency at the debate -- won’t work in changing the trajectory of this race. Rather astonishingly, he defended his past flip-flops, and even added and acknowledged a new one at the debate.
Trump was confronted with a litany of attacks, any one of which could gain traction in this intense period of scrutiny. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz raised particular concerns about Trump University, the defunct seminar program that’s now the subject of a lawsuit.
“He's making promises he has no intention of keeping,” Rubio said. “He's trying to con people into giving them their vote just like he conned these people into giving him their money.”
“Let me just ask the voters at home, is this the debate you want playing out in the general election?” Cruz asked. “When you nominate a candidate who literally has been on every side of every issue -- and in the course of this debate may be on two other sides before we're done -- that's not how you win, and the stakes are too high.”
Trump navigated a debate that took juvenile and raucous turns, as only Trump can and does. He called his rivals “Little Marco” and “Lying Ted,” even as he was asked tough questions about Trump-branded clothing being made in China, his onetime support of gun control, and his past donations to Democrats, including Hillary Clinton.
Trump also, on the spot, said he was changing his position to favor more visas for highly skilled foreign workers. He refused requests to allow the release of an off-the-record session with New York Times editors, where he is reported to have signaled flexibility on whether undocumented immigrants must be deported.
He even offered a defense of flip-flopping -- simultaneously giving his rivals new lines of attack, and showing why he’s so difficult to attack at all.
“I changed my tune, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that,” Trump said when confronted by Fox News’ Megyn Kelly with a series of issue areas where he’s changed his position. “I have a very strong core. But I've never seen a successful person who wasn't flexible, who didn't have a certain degree of flexibility.”
What hasn’t been flexible is the support he’s displayed in early primaries. The debate, while wild at times, didn’t reflect the true urgency of efforts to block Trump’s path to the nomination.
Trump played his own game, hoping the insults and the explanations can carry him through. His rivals –- including John Kasich, who again played his sunnier-times role with consistency -- are banking on a focus on policy and consistency that Republican voters haven’t displayed in the voting so far.
“You have to have the experience,” Kasich said. “I knew Ronald Reagan. And I'll leave it right there with what comes after that. You can figure that one out.”
Kasich also acknowledged that he, like the others on the smaller stage not named Trump, face a tough road if they hope to catch or surpass Trump’s support.
The frontrunner again gave viewers and voters what he thinks they want –- and it’s worth noting that he’s been proven right so far. Toward the end of the debate, he made clear what he’s selling is not a series of policies, but a personality.
“Frankly, when I say they'll do as I tell them, they'll do as I tell them,” he said of his potential interactions with world leaders. “I will prove to be a great leader.”
In the final question, Rubio, Cruz, and Kasich were asked if they would support Trump if he’s the nominee. All said yes – and Trump said he, too, would support the Republican nominee.