DETROIT (BP) — Whether GOP frontrunner Donald Trump is morally fit to be president drew extended focus during a March 3 Republican presidential debate in Detroit that also included discussion of religious liberty, adoption by same-sex couples, judicial nominations and the water crisis in Flint, Mich.
Trump’s opponents, and at times the Fox News moderators, suggested Trump’s alleged unkindness toward others, inconsistent policy positions and business impropriety are unbefitting a U.S. president. Trump countered that he is “flexible” rather than inconsistent, his business dealings are all above board and it is logically invalid to conclude from poll data that a large percentage of Republican voters believe he is unfit for the presidency.
The debate’s opening question from moderator Chris Wallace focused on a speech given earlier in the day by 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, in which he criticized Trump for “the bullying, the greed, the showing off, the misogyny, the absurd, third-grade theatrics.” Trump, Romney said, “lacks the temperament to be president.”
Trump responded by calling Romney “a failed candidate” whose performance in 2012 “was an embarrassment to everybody” and discussing how he differs with Romney on trade policy.
In response to Romney’s critique that Trump mishandled a Feb. 28 question from CNN’s Jake Tapper on the Ku Klux Klan and former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke, the New York businessman said, “I totally disavow the Ku Klux Klan. I totally disavow David Duke.”
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio defended his recent personal attacks against Trump, which moderator Bret Baier characterized as “vulgar jokes and jabs.”
“For the last year, Donald Trump has basically mocked everybody with personal attacks,” Rubio said. “He has done so to people that are sitting on the stage today. He has done so about people that are disabled. He has done it about every candidate in this race. So if there is anyone who has ever deserved to be attacked that way, it has been Donald Trump for the way he has treated people in the campaign.”
Rubio added, “Now that said, I would much prefer to have a public policy debate.” On policy questions, he alleged Trump’s foreign policies lack specificity and criticized him for having “defended Planned Parenthood for 30 seconds on a debate stage” last week.
In response to a suggestive jab by Rubio earlier in the week, Trump made a comment about his anatomy. Both comments were criticized as inappropriate by secular and Christian commentators.
Trump defended policy statements that could appear inconsistent by stating, “I have a very strong core. But I’ve never seen a successful person who wasn’t flexible.” Changes of opinion on issues like admission of Syrian refugees to the U.S., Trump said, stemmed from learning new information.
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz argued, presumably based on polls and election returns showing 30-35 percent support for Trump, “65-70 percent of Republicans … recognize that nominating Donald would be a disaster.” Rubio similarly told Trump, “Two-thirds of people who have cast a vote in a Republican primary or caucus have voted against you. They do not want you to be our nominee.”
Trump said that arguing two-thirds of Republican voters are hostile to him is an illegitimate interpretation of the data. Using the same logic, Trump said, a recent CNN national poll showing approximately 15 percent support each for Cruz and Rubio would mean 85 percent of voters “don’t dig” them.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich largely stayed out of the discussion of Trump’s character, though he implied Trump falls short of the presidential standard set by Ronald Reagan.
At one point, discussion turned to Trump’s suggestion in a previous debate that as president, he would target terrorists’ families with military strikes and employ interrogation methods more severe than waterboarding. Baier asked Trump what he would do if military commanders refused to obey such orders, believing them to be illegal.
“They won’t refuse,” Trump responded. “They’re not going to refuse. Believe me.”
When dealing with terrorists, Trump said, “we should go for waterboarding and we should go tougher than waterboarding.” He implied using military force against terrorists’ families is not always a violation of just warfare principles because family members are not necessarily innocent noncombatants.
In other discussion, Kasich was asked whether he believes vendors who object to same-sex marriage have the right not to provide services for gay weddings.
“At the end of the day,” Kasich replied, “if somebody is being pressured to participate in something that is against their deeply-held religious beliefs, then we’re going to have to think about dealing with the law. But you know what: I’d rather people figure this out without having to put another law on the books and have more arguments in this country.”
Cruz was asked whether he believes same-sex couples should have the right to adopt.
He replied, “Adoption is decided at the state level, and I am a believer in the 10th Amendment in the Constitution. I would leave the question of marriage to the states. I would leave the question of adoption to the states. That’s the way it has been for two centuries of our nation’s history until five unelected judges, in an illegitimate and wrong decision, decided to seize the authority over marriage and wrongfully tear down the marriage laws of all 50 states.”
Cruz said he will “never compromise away your religious liberty” by nominating Supreme Court justices who fail to uphold it. He argued Trump’s previous support of Jimmy Carter, John Kerry and Harry Reid demonstrates he does not “care about conservative Supreme Court justices.”
Trump countered by criticizing Cruz’s vote in the Senate to confirm chief justice John Roberts, who Trump said failed to “kill Obamacare” when he had an opportunity.
Rubio was asked by Baier why “GOP candidates haven’t done more or talked about” the water crisis in Flint, Mich. He responded that he and other Republican candidates have addressed Flint, a majority black community where lead contamination in the water has precipitated a public health crisis.
“The way the Democrats have tried to turn this into a partisan issue” by suggesting “that somehow Republicans woke up in the morning and decided, ‘Oh, it’s a good idea to poison some kids with lead’ — it’s absurd,” Rubio said. “It isn’t true. All of us are outraged by what happened, and we should work together to solve it.”
Despite their criticisms of one another, all four candidates pledged to support the eventual GOP presidential nominee.