Wolf Blitzer, Maria Celeste Arraras, Hugh Hewitt and Dana Bash
The tenth Republican primary debate was held on February 25, 2016 at the Moores Opera Center on the campus of the University of Houston, in Houston, Texas. Originally, it was scheduled to be hosted by CNBC, but following the third Republican debate in October of 2015, when CNBC hosted and was widely criticized for staffing moderators that were accused of attacking the candidates and excessively goading them into fights with one another, the Republican National Committee announced it would be breaking off ties with the network. As a result, CNN hosted tonight's event, which was moderated by Wolf Blitzer and had contributions from Hugh Hewitt, Dana Bash, and Maria Celeste Arraras.
With former Florida Governor Jeb Bush having recently suspended his presidential campaign, the only Republican candidates attending tonight were businessman (and clear frontrunner) Donald Trump, Texas Senator Ted Cruz, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, Ohio Governor John Kasich, and retired neurosurgeon Doctor Ben Carson. Of these five, only Trump, Cruz, and Rubio were seen by analysts and GOP insiders as still having a viable chance of winning the nomination. Kasich had responded to repeated invitations to drop out by arguing that his surrender would only strengthen Donald Trump in that it would all but guarantee a Trump primary victory in Kasich's home state of Ohio, while Ben Carson (who once enjoyed a solid second to Trump's dominance) compared the race to a round of baseball and alleged that those seeking his exit wanted to call the game after only the first inning – it was too early for him to throw in the towel, he said, no matter what the polls looked like.
This was the last Republican debate held before the “Super Tuesday” primaries on March 1, and with Trump's devastating wins in New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada, possibly the last chance for Rubio and Cruz to dampen the leader's momentum.
Perhaps because of this, the strongest candidates were attacking Trump right from the beginning. Cruz began with withering accusations that Trump supported amnesty for illegal immigrants because of comments the frontrunner had made that while all illegals would be deported under his administration, “the best” would be allowed back in. Trump dismissed this criticism by saying that Cruz was “in charge” of amnesty, and calling some of the Texas Senator's own policy positions into question. Meanwhile, Rubio had much to say about Trump's plans to cheaply build a wall along the Mexican border, saying that if it really could be done for $10-$12 billion as promised, Trump would ironically have to hire illegal aliens to construct it. Rubio also slugged Trump for his history of choosing workers, saying that Trump was the only person on the stage who had been fined for hiring illegal immigrants. “No,” Trump retorted. “I'm the only person who's hired anyone. You haven't hired anybody.”
Trump's rivals weren't alone in targeting him. Earlier on the day of the debate, former Mexican President Vicente Fox had taken to the airwaves to denounce Trump's plans for making Mexico pay for the border wall, with Fox saying “I'm not going to pay for that f*****g wall” and that Trump should do so as he can afford it. Moderator Wolf Blitzer asked whether, if Mexico's government proved recalcitrant in acceding to Trump's demands, he would in fact be able to force them, Trump pointedly responded: “I will, and the wall just got ten feet taller.”
With Super Tuesday just days away, the sparks were really flying in this debate, and not just in efforts from Cruz and Rubio to derail Trump. Each candidate was so insistent on speaking and making their points that they frequently did so out of turn, ignoring even Blitzer and the contributors when they tried to keep order. Many times, the GOP hopefuls ended up talking over one another, with the moderator's efforts to corral them proving fruitless. At one point, after an exhaustive discussion of Obamacare (during which all candidates were unanimous in their intention to repeal the healthcare law), the moderator stated his desire to move on to another subject. Ted Cruz, the only person on stage who had not had an opportunity to weigh in, was defiant and bordering on insolent as he demanded: “Everyone gets to talk about Obamacare but me?” Blitzer briefly argued, then demurely withdrew. “Ok, go ahead,” he allowed, to the laughter of the audience.
Later, Trump had even sharper words for contributor Hugh Hewitt, who asked about the billionaire's unreleased tax returns. Hewitt pointed out that, while a guest on his radio show, Trump has promised to make the returns public, but now was not doing so. Trump responded that he was currently under audit by the IRS – something that, he says, happens to him annually – and that he could not release recent tax documents until that matter was concluded. Before sharing this explanation, however, he expressed his disdain for the person asking the question: “Well first of all,” Trump began, “very few people listen to your radio show, so that's the good news.”
The candidates later sparred on their individual electability in a potential general election race against Hillary Clinton, with Cruz missing no opportunity to go on the offensive. He claimed that Trump simply could not defeat Clinton, while Cruz himself could. Trump shot back by claiming that he was in fact outperforming Cruz in polls, so “if I can't beat her, then you're really gonna get killed, aren't you?”
Discussion was heavy on foreign policy, with American plans toward North Korea, Syria, and ISIS all being brought up. Israel and American support for that nation received some talking time. And on the domestic front, privacy versus national security took the spotlight with focus on the Apple case, in which the electronics giant had refused a court order to help unlock the iPhone of one of the San Bernardino terrorists.
The evening concluded with closing statements from each candidate. Trump repeated comments he had made earlier in the evening to great applause, that politicians were “all talk and no action”. Rubio spoke of restoring the Republican values that once made the GOP the bearer of conservative principles. Cruz, meanwhile, used his time to talk about his first-day policies if elected, saying among other things that he would rescind all unconstitutional executive orders put in place by President Barack Obama.