US Election 2016

Tensions within Republican Party burst into open warfare at debate

Ted Cruz gestures at rival candidate Donald Trump at the Republican presidential candidates debate in Detroit, Michigan.
Ted Cruz gestures at rival candidate Donald Trump at the Republican presidential candidates debate in Detroit, Michigan.PHOTO: REUTERS

The Republican candidates for the US presidency turned in another ugly, ill-tempered debate - as simmering tensions within the party over the rise of controversial businessman Donald Trump erupted into an all-out war.

As was the case in the debate a week ago, Mr Trump's principal rivals - Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz - once again teamed up to attack the billionaire at every opportunity.

They accused Mr Trump of not being a true conservative, of flip-flopping on his policies, and for simply being insulting. The exchanges were heated and often juvenile - including a moment early on where Mr Trump decided it was necessary to defend the size of his manhood.

"And he referred to my hands, if they are small, something else must be small. I guarantee you there is no problem. I guarantee," he said in reference to remarks made by Mr Rubio on the campaign trail about Mr Trump's hands.

From that low point, the discourse rarely improved as candidates yelled over one another's answers, ignored the moderators and engaged in exchanges reminiscent of schoolyard quarrels.

Even on the topic of Supreme Court justices, the discussion turned to bickering.

Mr Cruz: "Donald, please, I know it's hard not to interrupt. But try.... breathe, breathe, breathe.

Mr Trump: "Lying Ted."

Mr Cruz: "You can do it. You can breathe. I know it's hard. I know it's hard. But just..."

All in, pundits did not think the debate in Detroit would do much to alter the trajectory of the race heading into primaries in Michigan, Kansas and a host of other states over the next week.

Mr Rubio: "When they're done with the yoga, can I answer a question?"

Through it all, Ohio Governor John Kasich - whose strategy was to play the adult in the room - refused every attempt to make him talk about Mr Trump.

"I'm not biting," he said in response to a question about what he thought of Mr Trump's approach to Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

In between the insults, Mr Cruz and Mr Rubio did their best to hammer home the point that Mr Trump does not hold true conservative principles and vacillates between different positions depending on what the audience wants to hear.

Mr Trump retorted that some flexibility was not a bad thing.

"You have to show a degree of flexibility. If you're going to be one way and you think it's wrong, does that mean the rest of your life you have to go in the wrong direction because you don't want to change?" he said in a response to a question from Fox anchor Megyn Kelly.

Thursday was also the first meeting between Mr Trump and Ms Kelly since August, when the businessman launched a Twitter tirade against her over what he felt was unfair treatment at a debate. He then boycotted a January debate when his demands for her to be replaced were ignored.

There were no fireworks in Thursday's encounter, however.

Ms Kelly: "Great to have you here."

Mr Trump: "You're looking well. You're looking well."

All in, pundits did not think the debate in Detroit would do much to alter the trajectory of the race heading into primaries in Michigan, Kansas and a host of other states over the next week.

"Little that emerged from this evening will significantly impact voting in Michigan and other states on Tuesday," said University of Michigan director of debate Aaron Kall. "Trump's supporters remain very loyal and nothing from tonight will likely cost him political support among his base. The other three candidates experienced bursts of success, but no one enjoyed the type of standout performance necessary to garner a tremendous amount of political mileage."

Despite the rancour, when asked point blank if anyone on the debate stage would pledge to support the Republican nominee, whoever it is, all responded yes.

Mr Kasich perhaps best summed up the feelings of those on stage.

"If he (Mr Trump) ends up as the nominee - sometimes, he makes it a little bit hard - but, you know, I will support whoever is the Republican nominee for president."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 05, 2016, with the headline 'Tensions within Republican Party burst into open warfare at debate'. Print Edition | Subscribe