Donald Trump is showing some wear and tear. The Republican front-runner took withering incoming from both Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz on a Detroit debate stage on Thursday, frequently appearing rattled as the pair laced into his checkered business record and history of flip-flopping on core positions.
It was a rough day all around for Trump, with Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican nominee, earlier delivering a devastating assault on him as a “fraud” who would lead the country into a “dark abyss” in a speech from Utah. Romney’s critique quickly won an endorsement from the 2008 nominee, Sen. John McCain, as the GOP’s old guard rallied behind a last-ditch effort to deny Trump the nod.
As the party apparently began cleaving over his candidacy, Trump arrived for the Thursday evening showdown with his trademark mix of swagger and prickliness in abundance. He opened the proceedings, for example, by attesting to the size of his manhood—a claim, it can safely be said, that has never before been made in a presidential debate.
But Trump quickly found himself on the defensive. And he was forced to fight from that position for much of the night as Rubio and Cruz, picking up where Romney left off, repeatedly laced into his business history in particular, continuing a joint if uncoordinated attempt to make a liability out of one of Trump’s key strengths with voters. To spell out the connection, Rubio premiered a new line: “He has spent a career of convincing Americans that he’s something that he’s not in exchange for their money. Now he’s trying to do the same in exchange for their country.”
Trump did not fare well in the face of the attacks. An extended exchange over the performance of real estate seminars branded Trump University was especially brutal.
Rubio brought the issue up as further evidence that the billionaire has willfully conned working people. But after some sniping between Rubio and Trump over the facts, Fox News moderator Megyn Kelly interjected to note that, in fact, as Rubio had maintained, the enterprise earned a “D-minus” rating from the Better Business Bureau, is now facing a class-action suit from over 5,000 plaintiffs, and a counter-suit by Trump had been tossed out with Trump required to cover the fees. “This is what the Court of Appeals found,” Kelly said, “They said that the plaintiffs against you are like the Madoff victims.” All of sudden, the debate felt more like a court proceeding, with Trump as the defendant.
Rubio jumped back in to describe a conversation he’d just had with a constituent who took the course, then requested a refund “when they finally realized what a scam it was,” and was denied. Trump replied uncharacteristically meekly that he, “gave many people their money back,” which a viewer could take as a tacit acknowledgment that the seminar wasn’t what it purported to be.
Meanwhile, Cruz —coming off Super Tuesday wins in Texas, Oklahoma and Alaska, a run that revived his argument that he’s the most effective anti-Trump in the field — also came alive in the debate. After a relatively sleepy turn in the last one, the Texas firebrand successfully pressed the point that voters should wonder what Trump is hiding about his plans to overhaul immigration, considering the dustup over off-the-record comments he made on the issue to the New York Times editorial board. And he managed to float somewhat above the fray of the hotter exchanges between Rubio and Trump, asking after one, “Let me ask the voters at home, is this the debate you want playing out in the general election?”
Whether any of it matters is the question that will obsess Republican leaders for the next two weeks. Trump has made it to the cusp of the party’s nomination having piled up scores of controversies any one of which would have sunk an aspirant under the normal laws of political physics. And he’s given similarly flimsy debate performances only to turn around and win the next contest. But the campaign does appear to be entering a new phase, in which the willing anti-Trump money from big donors will marshall behind a final attempt to shrink his support by highlighting all the vulnerabilities in his biography.
The aim, as Romney alluded to in his speech, will be to find ways, state by state, to deny Trump the 1,237 delegates he needs to clinch the nomination. If that’s possible, the fight will carry all the way to the July convention in Cleveland, where the party will have an opportunity to rally around an alternative. But it remains an increasingly long-shot proposition, born of desperation.