Big moments from the Detroit GOP debate

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Detroit — Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump took a licking and kept on kicking Thursday night during the Fox News debate in Detroit, shooting from the hip as opponents set him in their sights.

Trump, responding to an electability attack from Marco Rubio, pivoted to recent comments the Florida senator made about his hand size and an allusion to his genitalia, a shocking moment for a presidential debate.

“He’s really not that much of a lightweight,” Trump said of Rubio. “He hit my hands. Nobody has ever hit my hands. 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 you.”

Rubio this week also mocked Trump’s “spray tan,” but during the debate he mostly went after the New York businessman for polling numbers that suggest he could have a hard time winning a general election against Democrat Hillary Clinton. He also questioned Trump’s commitment to the Republican cause.

“We are not going to turn over the conservative movement, the party of Lincoln and Reagan, to someone whose positions are not conservative,” said Rubio, “to someone who last week defended Planned Parenthood for 30 seconds on the debate stage, to someone who thinks the nuclear triad is a rock band from the 1980s.”

Trump referred to Rubio as “little Marco” throughout the debate, a continued jab at the candidate’s height.

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The feisty exchange between Rubio and Trump dominated the opening minutes of the debate, prompting Ohio Gov. John Kasich and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas to ask moderators for policy questions. Rubio and Trump would trade barbs throughout the debate, and Cruz would mix it up with Trump as well.

Trump remains the front-runner and polls suggest he is well positioned to win Michigan’s March 8 primary. But he has faced a series of stinging attacks in recent weeks from Republicans worried by the prospect of his nomination, including 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney, who earlier Thursday called Trump “a phony, a fraud.”

Fox News host Chris Wallace opened the debate by asking Trump about Romney’s comments, and the brash businessman fired back in predictable fashion.

“He was a failed candidate,” Trump said of Romney, the former Massachusetts governor and Michigan native. “He should have beaten President Obama very easily. He failed miserably, and it was an embarrassment.”

In other notable moments, Cruz responded to a Trump attack on Supreme Court nominees by suggesting he has a “tenuous relationship with the truth,” a charge that to repeated interjections by Trump.

“Donald, please, I know it’s hard not to interrupt,” Cruz said. “Breathe, breathe, breathe. You can do it.”

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Rubio, who then also interrupted, got the biggest laugh of the night: “When they’re done with the yoga, can I answer the question?”

The contentious debate ended with a moment of unity, as each candidate pledged to support the party’s nominee in the general election, even if that nominee is Trump.

“Sometimes he makes it a little hard, but I will support the GOP nominee,” said Kasich.