Relentless in their attacks, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz leveled withering criticism at Donald Trump's "flexible" policy positions and personal ethics in a Republican presidential debate Thursday that also featured a crude sexual reference from Trump.
The two senators, who earlier had devoted considerable debate time to throwing sharp elbows at one another, pressed Trump aggressively on his conservative credentials, his business practices and changing policies.
But on a day when the Republican establishment was in chaos over the prospect of Trump landing the GOP nomination, Cruz, Rubio and Ohio Gov. John Kasich all said they would support Trump if he won primary election battle. And Trump, in turn, said he would support whoever wins -- though he seemed to find it inconceivable that it might not be him.
Pressed on policy matters, Trump, in short order, signaled a willingness to deal on any number of issues.
He said it was fine that Florida Sen. Rubio had negotiated with other lawmakers on immigration policy.
He said he had changed his own mind to support admitting more highly skilled workers from overseas, adding matter-of-factly, "I'm changing. I'm changing. We need highly skilled people in this country."
And he also was matter of fact about providing campaign contributions to leading Democrats, including 10 checks to Hillary Clinton, reviled by many conservatives.
Trump said it was simply business.
"I've supported Democrats and I've supported Republicans, and as a businessman I owed that to my company, to my family, to my workers, to everybody to get along," he said.
The bad blood among the candidates flowed freely.
Rubio justified his attacks on Trump by saying the billionaire businessman had "basically mocked everybody" over the past year. Trump countered with a feint, saying he'd called Rubio a "lightweight" in the past but "he's really not that much of a lightweight."
Trump then noted that Rubio had mocked his hands as small, widely viewed as an insult about Trump's sexual prowess. Holding his hands up to the audience, Trump declared, "I guarantee you, there's no problem" in that area.
It was a jaw-dropping moment in a campaign that's been full of surprises from the beginning.
On policy, when moderator Megyn Kelly told Trump his shifts caused some people to question his core, Trump insisted: "I have a very strong core. I have a very strong core. But I've never seen a successful person who wasn't flexible, who didn't have a certain degree of flexibility."
Kasich sought to turn Trump's statement on the value of "flexibility" into a character question. When meeting with voters, the Ohio governor said, "you know what they really want to know? If somebody tells them something, can they believe it?"
In one moment of levity, Texas Sen. Cruz poked fun at Trump for interrupting, telling the businessman, "Breathe, breathe, breathe."
Rubio chimed in, "When they're done with the yoga, can I answer a question?"
In one particularly sharp exchange, Rubio renewed his criticisms of Trump University, which charged students $1,495 each for seminars that would teach them the billionaire's secrets to making it big in real estate. A lawsuit filed by the New York attorney general claims the classes fell so short of promises that it amounted to fraud.
"He's trying to do to the American voters what he did to the people that signed up for this course," Rubio declared. "He's trying to con people into giving him their vote just as he conned those people."
Cruz, tag-teaming on the issue, saying, "If we nominate Donald, we're going to spend the fall and the summer with the Republican nominee facing a fraud trial,"
Trump was dismissive, saying: "It's a minor civil case. Give me a break."
And he turned the tables, saying Rubio is "the real con artist." He said the first-term senator "scammed the people of Florida" by skipping a high number of votes while running for president.
In another exchange, Rubio faulted Trump's businesses for manufacturing clothing in China and Mexico rather than the U.S. Asked when he would start making more clothes in the U.S., Trump said that would happen when currency valuations weren't biased against manufacturing garments in America.
Cruz, too, took the fight to Trump, accusing him of being "someone who has used government power for private gain."
"For 40 years, Donald has been part of the corruption in Washington" that people are angry about, Cruz said, citing Trump's campaign contributions to leading Democrats, including then-Sen. Clinton.
Trump piled more insults, too, on the party's 2012 presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, who earlier Thursday made a rare public appearance to denounce Trump as "a phony" who is "playing the American public for suckers."
Trump dismissed Romney as "a failed candidate" and an "embarrassment."
"Obviously, he wants to be relevant," Trump said dismissively.
Thursday's debate was the first time he faced questioning from Kelly since the two clashed in the first primary debate. That's when Kelly's tough questioning about Trump's treatment of women blew up into a running argument between Fox and the candidate.
Trump signaled he was ready for a truce. When Kelly posed her first question to him, Trump told her "you're looking well. You're looking well."
With Ben Carson's exit from the race this week, the field of Republican candidates has now been narrowed to four, but any number of predictions that GOP voters would unite behind one anti-Trump candidate have come and gone without a change in the overall dynamic.
Trump, with 10 state victories, leads the field with 329 delegates. Cruz has 231, Rubio 110 and Kasich 25. It takes 1,237 delegates to win the Republican nomination for president.
Fox 2's live blog below gives a play-by-play of some of the key topics discussed during the debate.
10:57 p.m. – Candidates, would you support any GOP nominee?
For the final question of the night, moderators asked about the Republican National Committee’s pledge that the candidates signed to support whichever Republican wins the party’s presidential nomination.
Specifically, they asked candidates if they would support Trump. Both Rubio and Cruz said yes, saying they follow their promises.
“When you’re in the arena, you enter a special circle and you want to respect the people (in it),” Kasich agreed.
Trump also said he would support the nominee, if it wasn’t him.
Also: Rubio cited marcorubio.com for a fourth time.
10:38 p.m. – Rubio’s zinger
In what will likely be played over and over in the media tomorrow, Rubio delivered a zinger that referenced Trump’s changing opinions.
Earlier in the debate, moderators asked about Trump’s flip-flopping stances on issues, to which he replied: You have to be flexible.
Cruz began talking about how Trump stretches the truth, and when Trump interrupted, Cruz told him to breathe. He repeated the word several times, and said that he “hopes there’s no yoga on the stage.”
With a smirk, Rubio chimed in: But he’s very flexible.
10:29 p.m. – Same-sex marriage and religious liberties
Candidates were asked their opinion on whether businesses had the right to refuse business from those they feel violate their religious beliefs, such as members of the LGBT community.
Kasich’s point was basic: Find someone else, don’t sue them in court.
“Can’t we have common sense in America? That’s the way it used to be,” he said.
Cruz said he would leave the question of marriage and adoption up to the states, and that the Supreme Court’s federal decision on same-sex marriage issued in June 2015 wrongfully took the right to decide away from the states.
Trump echoed his statements, stating a preference that it should have been left to the states.
10:22 p.m. – Flint water crisis / Detroit bankruptcy
Although moderators asked them to refrain from playing a “political blame game,” candidates had a chance to respond the Flint water crisis and Detroit’s bankruptcy.
Rubio said he gives Gov. Rick Snyder credit, but emphasized the importance of credibility. He said it’s the job of government at all levels – local, state and federal – to protect the people they serve.
When asked about Detroit’s economic stance, and specifically, the condition of its schools, Kasich cited his experience in Ohio and the major overhaul that he claims is bringing teachers back to schools.
“Fixing schools rests at the state and local level, and particularly at the school board level,” he said, adding that vocational training and mentoring in schools is key to success. He said adults need to put politics aside and fight for the future of their children.
Cruz had the opportunity to talk about Detroit’s economy.
"[Detroit] has been utterly decimated by 60 years of failed left-wing policies,” he said.
When asked how to revive Detroit, Cruz said he would lift regulations, repeal Obamacare, repeal the Environmental Protection Agency restrictions that kill businesses and implement tax reforms.
10:08 p.m. – The Rubio robot
A little over an hour into the debate, Rubio said “marcorubio.com” for the third time, when directing viewers to his website for more information about his policies.
After repeating a phrase that President Obama “doesn’t know what he’s doing” several times during a previous debate, Rubio was lambasted by other candidates and referred to as a “robot.”
This may or may not be a subject of conversation in media reports following the debate.
10:01 p.m. – Trump’s flip-flopping stances
An hour into the debate, Kelly addressed Trump’s “tell it like it is” mantra.
She said that on the contrary, Trump often gives an opinion on a subject, then changes his mind. Fox News played clips exemplifying their statement.
Trump cited a lack of knowledge when giving an opinion on certain topics before doing more research and changing his stance.
“The point I’m going for is that you change your tune on so many things,” Kelly said, asking what his “core” is.
Trump responded that a certain degree of flexibility is necessary because he learns more about a topic.
Kasich said that while campaigning in Michigan, he learned that what people want to know is whether they can believe a candidate.
Rubio chimed in, saying there is a difference between flexibility and telling voters what they want to hear.
9:50 p.m. – The candidates on terrorist threats
In terms of handling terrorists, moderators asked candidates what they would do if the U.S. military refused to take commands, as they are trained to refuse to take illegal orders.
“They won’t refuse – they’re not going to refuse me, believe me,” Trump said.
He talked about people in the Middle East “chopping off the heads of Christians” and “drowning people in steel cages.” Referring to terrorists as “animals,” Trump pushed going tougher on water boarding.
“Yelling and cursing at people doesn’t make you a tough guy,” Cruz argued.
He emphasized the importance of plans, citing former President Ronald Reagan’s efforts to win the Cold War. As president, Cruz said he would ensure terrorists knew joining ISIS would mean consequences.
"If they wage jihad against the United States of America, they are signing their death warrant,” he said.
9:40 p.m. – Trump softening immigration policy
Trump announced he was softening his policy on immigration, stating that if Americans don’t have the necessary skills to build the U.S., immigrants may be the key.
The candidate said contrary to the strict immigration policy outlined on his website found here, there are immigrants who attend top colleges and learn skills needed in the U.S.
“We have to have talented people in this country,” Trump said.
9:32 p.m. – The Trump and Kelly truce
Half an hour into the debate, audiences got what they wanted: Kelly and Trump.
Kelly greeted Trump, with a “You’re looking well,” reply from the businessman.
Tonight is the first time Trump has participated in a debate moderated by Kelly since their public sparring during previous debates.
Kelly proceeded to ask a question, without a heated exchanged.
The pair made headlines for a fight during the August 6 debate, when Kelly brought up some of the names Trump has called women in the past. Growing defensive, Trump engaged in a heated back-and-forth. He then turned to Twitter to continue to fight, with tweets such as, “I liked The Kelly File much better without @megynkelly. Perhaps she could take another eleven day unscheduled vacation!” He also retweeted several tweets from accounts calling Kelly unsavory names.
9:30 p.m. – Let’s talk immigration
When Fox News host addressed immigration policy, Cruz launched into a speech about Trump’s financial support for liberals, including opponent former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Cruz said Trump gave checks to five of the eight members of the Gang of Eight, which a common term for the bi-partisan group of eight U.S. Senators who authored an immigration reform bill in 2013.
9:25 p.m. – Check out my website
Noticeably, both Rubio and Cruz cited their personal websites during the debate. Both candidates directed viewers to their websites for specific policy plans. Rubio cited his twice.
9:18 p.m. – Trump vs. Rubio
Trump continued to use his new favorite nickname for Rubio, “Little Marco,” during Thursday’s debate by calling him “little guy.”
Trump and Rubio have engaged in a series of attacks on one another along the campaign trail over the past few weeks, from Rubio’s comments on Trump pants-wetting to Trump’s streamline of attacks on Rubio’s performance in the Senate.
Moderators brought up when Rubio had claimed he would never resort to name calling and addressed Rubio’s attacks on Trump throughout the past week – including the businessman’s hands, his sweating, his spelling and more.
“If there’s anyone who deserved to have been attacked that way, it’s Donald Trump,” Rubio responded.
9:07 p.m. – Trump on KKK endorsement
Also making headlines this week was Trump’s endorsement from the KKK. Less than 10 minutes into the debate, moderators got the subject out of the way.
“I totally disavow the (KKK) ... You’re probably about the 18th person to ask me the question,” Trump said.
He claimed that has been his stance all along.
9:03 p.m. – Trump: Mitt Romney failed
Right off the bat, moderators addressed former presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s speech Thursday morning where he denounced the businessman.
"He failed miserably and it was an embarrassment to everybody, including the Republican party,” Trump responded.
Earlier Thursday afternoon at a campaign rally in Portland, Maine, Trump said during his presidential run, Romney was “begging” for his endorsement.
"I could have said, 'Mitt, drop to your knees,' and he would have dropped to his knees,” he said.