The Republican presidential race got dirty Thursday night.
Donald Trump opened the GOP debate here by responding to recent comments from Marco Rubio in which the Florida senator joked about the size of Trump’s hands and said “you know what they say about men with small hands.”
On the debate stage, Trump stretched his hands out for the audience to see — then insisted that the suggestion that “something else must be small” was false.
“I guarantee you there’s no problem,” Trump said to howls from the audience at the Fox debate.
It was perhaps the most surreal moment in a presidential race that has already been dominated by unprecedented drama and personal attacks. Trump went into the debate after spending the day in a heated war of words with the party’s 2012 nominee, Mitt Romney.
Romney, who has blasted Trump for days, delivered a sharp condemnation of Trump earlier Thursday — a deeply unusual move for a former presidential nominee.
“Here’s what I know: Donald Trump is a phony, a fraud,” Romney said in a speech in Salt Lake City. “His promises are as worthless as a degree from Trump University. He’s playing members of the American public for suckers. He gets a free ride to the White House, and all we get is a lousy hat.”
He hit back during the debate, calling Romney an “embarrassment” to the GOP.
“He was a failed candidate, he should have beaten President Obama very easy. He failed miserably and it was an embarrassment to everybody,” Trump said. “I guess obviously he wants to be relevant, he wants to be back in the game.”
During a rally in Maine earlier Thursday, Trump blasted Romney for “begging” for his endorsement.
“I don’t know what happened to him,” Trump said. “You can see how loyal he is. He was begging for my endorsement. I could have said, ‘Mitt, drop to your knees.’ He would have dropped to his knees.”
The debate comes as the GOP field is quickly winnowing. When Trump took the debate stage for the first time in August, 17 candidates were seeking the Republican nomination. Eight months later, Trump is the undisputed front-runner and is on stage with just three rivals: Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and John Kasich.
The candidates are meeting two days after Trump dominated the Super Tuesday contests, notching seven victories and picking up hundreds of new delegates. Cruz, who kicked off the GOP primary season by winning the Iowa caucuses, added three victories on Tuesday, including in his delegate-heavy home state of Texas. Rubio also got his first win of the season, coming in first in Minnesota’s caucuses.
Trump fielded attacks from Cruz and Rubio throughout the night.
Rubio, who is banking on winning his home state of Florida on March 15, went after the GOP front-runner for selling products made in China and Mexico.
Trump shot back: “This little guy has lied so much about my record. He has lied so much about my record.”
Rubio, seemingly amused by the new nickname he’s earned, accused Trump of being incapble of having a substantive policy debate. “You see what happens again when you challenge him on a policy issue?” Rubio said. “The first thing he does is launch an attack on some little guy thing.”
“Don’t worry about it, little Marco,” Trump quipped.
Cruz, as he has done for weeks, also seized the spotlight to hit Trump for having supported and donated money to Democrats in the past.
“For 40 years, Donald has been part of the corruption in Washington that you’re angry about. And your’e not going to stop the corruption in Washington by supporting someone who has supported liberal Democrats for four decades,” Cruz said.
With Trump emerging as the undisputed GOP front-runner, many party leaders and insiders insist he’s not a true conservative. They also worry that Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric on immigration could permanently unravel the GOP’s efforts over the years to reach out to Latinos and other minorities.
But even as Romney and others try to lead the effort to stop Trump, the belated push may only reinforce the real estate mogul’s appeal as his supporters have already shown their deep loathing for establishment figures.