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Republicans rumble in Detroit debate

Jonathan Oosting, Chad Livengood, Jim Lynch, and Leonard N. Fleming
Sen. Marco Rubio, left, Donald Trump, and Sen. Ted Cruz participate in the debate.

Detroit — GOP front-runner Donald Trump faced repeated lines of attack from U.S. Sens. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz in the 11th Republican presidential debate Thursday over his bombastic rhetoric, failed business ventures and past policy positions mirroring those favored by Democrats.

“We are not going to turn over the conservative movement, the party of Lincoln and Reagan, to someone whose positions are not conservative,” Rubio said during a raucous exchange on the stage of Detroit’s historic Fox Theatre. “Of all the people on this stage, he’s the one who performs worst to Hillary Clinton.”

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The debate thrust Michigan’s presidential primary into the spotlight in the midst of a grueling and extraordinary GOP campaign. Appealing to conservative voters in Michigan and other states that will vote later this spring, Cruz and Rubio continued to paint Trump as a friend of the Democratic Party with liberal views.

Rubio and Trump talked over each other repeatedly as the Florida senator called into question the billionaire real estate mogul’s business acumen, noting a series of failed ventures.

“You haven’t employed one person. I have employed tens of thousands of people,” Trump responded, repeatedly referring to Rubio as “little Marco.”

Rubio and Cruz both took aim at lawsuits pending against Trump’s failed real estate investment school brought by former students who allege the billionaire’s Trump University scammed them out of five-figure tuition bills.

Big moments from the Detroit GOP debate

“You know what they got in these courses? Stuff you can pull off of Zillow,” Rubio said. “... He’s trying to con people into getting their vote, just as he conned people into giving them their money.”

Cruz said Trump’s lawsuits leave him vulnerable to general election scrutiny.

“If we nominate Donald, we’re going to spend the spring and summer with the Republican nominee facing a fraud trial,” Cruz said.

“It’s a minor civil case,” Trump shouted over Cruz.

“Donald, you’ve got to learn not to interrupt,” Cruz responded. “Count to 10.”

Trump repeatedly downplayed the significance of the lawsuits, at one point telling moderator Megyn Kelly, “Oh, give me a break.”

The New York businessman then tried to turn the issue of honesty against Rubio by claiming the senator “scammed” his Florida voters by missing Senate votes to run for president.

“The people of Florida can’t stand him, he couldn’t get elected dogcatcher,” Trump said of Rubio. “... You defrauded the people of Florida, little Marco.”

Ohio Gov. John Kasich, the fourth man on stage, didn’t get to speak during the first 12 minutes of the debate as Trump, Rubio and Cruz sparred.

“Everywhere I go people say ‘you seem to be the adult on stage,’ ” Kasich said.

At one point, Kasich declined to critique Trump when asked if he thinks the businessman is naive about the threat of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“I’m not biting,” Kasich said, generating an applause.

Kasich steered clear of the fight throughout the two-hour debate, using his limited speaking time to emphasize his record cutting taxes, fostering job creation in Ohio and improving government services for the mentally ill, disabled and racial minorities.

“I have a record of being able to solve some of the biggest problems,” Kasich said. “It’s not just talk, it’s not just theory.”

Kasich also sought to portray himself as the uniter who can attract Democrats and independents to defeat the presumptive Democratic nominee, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

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“I can get the crossover votes,” Kasich said. “Throughout this campaign, I’ve talked about this issues. ... People say to me everywhere I go, you seem to be the adult on the stage.”

Kasich sought to reassert his importance in the GOP nomination battle because he hails from a state that chooses presidents. Earlier in the day, Kasich contended if he wins the March 15 primary in Ohio that it will deny Trump the GOP nomination outright, sending the decision to a contentious national convention in July in Cleveland.

The second term Ohio governor had planned to campaign all week in Michigan until Tuesday’s primary, but is shifting gears back home and will return to Ohio on Sunday for events in Columbus and Toledo.

“Let me tell you this: I will win Ohio,” Kasich said. “And I am going to move all across this country and over time as people begin to finally hear my message … you know what people say to me all the time? Why don’t they give you any time on the debate stage? Now all of a sudden I’m beginning to get it.”

Earlier in the debate, Cruz made an indirect attack on Trump’s campaign slogan to “Make America Great Again” in a critique of the bitter and personal attacks that have come to define the Republican presidential primaries.

“I don’t think the people of America are interested in a bunch of bickering school children,” the Texas senator said.

Cruz said Trump is selling a populist slogan that can’t be transferred into a governing model.

“They’re interested in solutions, not slogans,” Cruz said. “It’s easy to say, ‘make things better, make things great.’ You can even print it and put it on a ball cap. But the question is, do you understand the principles that made America great in the first place?”

Cruz also railed against Trump’s campaign donations to Democrats as recently as a few years ago.

“Donald Trump supported Jimmy Carter over Ronald Reagan,”Cruz said. “Donald Trump supported John Kerry over George W. Bush.”

Trump said the donations were “for business.”

“In 2008, I supported Hillary Clinton ... and that’s because I am in business,” Trump said.

Moderators peppered Trump

Trump took fire not just from his opponents, but the Fox News moderators, who peppered him with questions.

The cable channel showed a series of video clips showing multiple contradictory statements he’s made about foreign policy issues in the past few weeks.

Trump said his views on the war in Afghanistan, for instance, evolved as he learned more about the facts surrounding the conflict.

“You have to have a certain degree of flexibility,” Trump said.

Rubio seized on Trump’s response.

“There’s a difference between flexibility and telling people whatever you need to say to get them to do what you want them to do,” Rubio said.

clivengood@detroitnews.com

(517) 371-3660

Twitter.com/ChadLivengood