The first Republican debate following Super Tuesday amplified recent mudslinging between presidential primary candidates.
The debate, held at Detroit’s Fox Theater just days before the Michigan primary, featured GOP frontrunner Donald Trump, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, Texas Senator Ted Cruz and Ohio Governor John Kasich. Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson did not participate after releasing a statement on Wednesday stating, “I do not see a political path forward in light of last evening’s Super Tuesday primary results.”
Debate moderators wasted no time addressing the elephant in the room; Former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s fiery speech earlier in the day, which laid out his criticisms of the billionaire businessman.
Trump argued that the former Utah governor is a failed candidate trying to be relevant again. He addressed Romney’s criticism of his stance on free trade and former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke.
The low blows started coming when Rubio alleged that many of Trump’s business endeavors have failed.
“He has spent a career of convincing Americans that he's something that he's not in exchange for their money. Now he's trying to do the same in exchange for their country. This is a fact. He talks about these great businesses that he's built. He inherited over $100 million.”
To which Trump replied, “This little guy has lied so much about my record.”
Cruz joined in to highlight Trump’s support of liberal Democrats in previous elections.
“I understand the folks who are supporting Donald right now. You're angry. You're angry at Washington, and he uses angry rhetoric...But for 40 years, Donald has been part of the corruption in Washington that you're angry about.”
Following a question by the moderators, Rubio and Cruz called on Trump to release the audio tape of an off-the-record conversation he had with the New York Times editorial board, during which he allegedly expressed flexibility when it came to his immigration policy.
The real estate mogul was also asked to address inconsistencies in his positions on other key issues and about the Trump University court case which is pending.
“They [plaintiffs in the case] signed up for this course because they believed Mr. Trump was this fantastic businessman, that Donald is going to teach them the tricks of the trade,” Rubio said.
“He's trying to do to the American voter what he did to the people that signed up for this course. He's making promises he has no intention of keeping. And it won't just be $36,000 that they lose, it's our country that's at stake here.”
Governor Kasich was the only candidate onstage who largely avoided engaging in the rough banter, responding to a question about Trump with, “I'm not biting.”
All in all, it seemed, substantive discussion on issues like immigration, taxes and national security was sandwiched between long bouts of personal attacks.
Republican Strategist Ford O’Connell told FOXBusiness.com despite Cruz and Rubio’s best efforts to “Cuban sandwich” Trump, it may be too little too late.
“[The other candidates] allowed Trump to define himself before they could define him. They flat out ignored him for too long.”
He added, “They started to draw blood from Trump [this debate], but did they draw enough with the next set of elections looming?”
The light at the end of the low brow insults tunnel, though, came when all candidates vowed to support the eventual Republican nominee. With several crucial GOP primaries in the pipeline, it may only be a matter of weeks until we know who that will be.