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Trump Attacked From All Sides In Bitter, Chaotic Debate


Here you have it, ladies and gentlemen - democracy in America in March 2016. It's always been a raucous system, sometimes even violent, but rarely, if ever, was there a day exactly like Thursday.


Presidential candidates piled on their rival Donald Trump in a debate from Detroit aired on the Fox News Channel. Earlier the same day, Trump, now the Republican front-runner, was attacked as a danger to democracy by the last Republican nominee.

INSKEEP: Here's NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: It was an extraordinary day for the Republican Party. Just hours before the debate, the civil war inside the GOP burst into the open. Mitt Romney, the 2012 nominee, called on his party to keep the contest alive even at the convention by preventing Donald Trump from reaching the 1,237 delegates needed to be nominated. Romney said Trump was a phony playing American voters for suckers.


MITT ROMNEY: Think of Donald Trump's personal qualities - the bullying, the greed, the showing off, the misogyny, the absurd third-grade theatrics.

LIASSON: At the debate, the very first question was to Trump about Romney's remarks.


DONALD TRUMP: He was a failed candidate. He should have beaten President Obama very easy. He failed miserably. And it was an embarrassment to everybody, including the Republican Party. He went away - it looked like he went away on a vacation the last month. So I don't take that. And I guess, obviously, he wants to be relevant. He wants to be back in the game.

LIASSON: The debate was raucous and personal. Trump called Rubio little Marco and Cruz lying Ted Cruz. The candidates didn't say each other's mothers wore army boots, but it came pretty close. In one OMG moment, Donald Trump responded to Rubio and actually defended the size of his - well, here's the tape.


TRUMP: I have to say this. He hit my hands. Nobody has ever hit my hands. I've never heard of this one. Look at those hands. Are they small hands? And he referred to my hands - if they're small, something else must be small. I guarantee you, there's no problem. I guarantee it.

BRET BAIER: OK, moving on.

LIASSON: Moving on, moderator Bret Baier asked Ohio Gov. John Kasich about Romney's calls for Trump's rivals to unite by supporting each other in their home states of Ohio and Florida. Both vote on March 15.


BAIER: So do you buy Romney's blueprint? And can you say tonight to your Florida supporters that they should vote for Senator Rubio to get a contested convention?

LIASSON: Nope - Kasich wasn't buying it.


JOHN KASICH: As the Democrats tell me all the time, I can get the crossover votes, you see, because throughout this campaign I've talked about issues. I have never tried to go and get into these kind of scrums that we're seeing here on the stage. And people say everywhere I go, you seem to be the adult on the stage. In terms of - you know, Mitt Romney's - you know, he's a great guy. But he doesn't determine my strategy.

LIASSON: Even if none of Trump's remaining opponents were willing to sacrifice themselves to stop him, all three of them were united in one ambition last night - to undermine what looks like Trump's increasingly sure path to the nomination. Cruz and Rubio piled on Trump for donating money to Hillary Clinton's 2008 campaign for president, for manufacturing his clothing line overseas, for failing to hire American workers at his Florida resort, for reportedly telling the New York Times that he didn't mean what he's been saying about immigration - and there was this attack from Rubio about a civil lawsuit claiming Trump University defrauded its students.


MARCO RUBIO: He's trying to do to the American voter what he did to the people that signed up for this course. He's making promises he has no intention of keeping. And it won't just be $36,000 that they lose. It's our country that's at stake here. And he's trying to con people into giving them their vote just like he conned these people into giving them their money.


TRUMP: Let me tell you the real con artist - excuse me. The real con artist is Sen. Marco Rubio, who was elected in Florida and who has the worst voting record in the United States Senate. He doesn't go to vote. He's absent. Now, the people of Florida can't stand him. He couldn't get elected dog catcher. The people of Florida...

LIASSON: Rubio and Cruz, once bitter rivals, were finally tag-teaming Trump.


TED CRUZ: Let me just ask the voters at home - is this the debate you want playing out in the general election?


CRUZ: And the stakes in this election are too high. For seven years, millions of Americans, we've been struggling. Wages have been stagnating. People are hurting. Our constitutional rights are under assault. And if we nominate Donald, we're going to spend the fall and the summer with a Republican nominee facing a fraud trial...

TRUMP: Oh, stop it.

CRUZ: ..With Hillary Clinton saying...

TRUMP: It's a minor case.

CRUZ: ...Why did you give my campaign...

TRUMP: Excuse me.

CRUZ: ...And my foundation $100,000...

TRUMP: It's a minor civil case.

CRUZ: ...And with Hillary Clinton...

TRUMP: Give me a break.

CRUZ: ...Pointing out that he supported her four times in a presidential race.

TRUMP: It's a minor civil case.

CRUZ: Donald, learn to not interrupt.

TRUMP: There are many, many civil cases.

CRUZ: It's not complicated. Count to 10, Donald.

TRUMP: Give me a break.

CRUZ: Count to 10.

TRUMP: Give me a break.

LIASSON: Trump said he donated to Clinton's campaign for business reasons. And he admitted to, quote, "changing his tune" on Syrian refugees, gun control and immigration. But he said he didn't see anything wrong with that. Trump was also asked about the former NSA director's statement that the military would refuse to carry out some of Trump's campaign promises because they were illegal.


BAIER: So what would you do as commander in chief if the U.S. military refused to carry out those orders?

TRUMP: They won't refuse. They're not going to refuse me, believe me.

BAIER: But they're illegal.

TRUMP: Let me just tell you, you look at the Middle East, they're chopping off heads. And now we're talking about waterboarding. We should go for waterboarding, and we should go tougher than waterboarding.

BAIER: But targeting terrorists' families?


TRUMP: And I'm a leader. I'm a leader. I've always been a leader. I've never had any problem leading people. If I say do it, they're going to do it. That's what leadership is all about.

LIASSON: On a day when some Republicans were talking openly about the possibility of forming a third party if Trump is the nominee, the candidates were asked whether they'd stick to their pledge to support the nominee, even if it was Donald Trump. Kasich, Cruz and Rubio said yes. And Trump...


CHRIS WALLACE: Can you definitively say tonight that you will definitely support the Republican nominee for president, even if it's not you?

TRUMP: Even if it's not me?


WALLACE: Yes, you will support the nominee of the party?

TRUMP: Yes - yes, I will.

LIASSON: Inside the Fox Theater in Detroit, the candidates suggested they'd all come together after the convention. But those assurances seemed at odds with the spectacle playing out everywhere else of a party utterly at war with itself. Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.
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