(Ben Carson was invited, but did not attend the debate and suspended his campaign the following day)
The eleventh Republican primary debate was held on March 3, 2016, at the Fox Theater in Detroit, Michigan. It was hosted by Fox News – the third debate overseen this election cycle by that network – and moderated by journalists Brett Baier, Chris Wallace, and Megyn Kelly.
The last time Fox News had hosted a GOP debate and asked Megyn Kelly to moderate, Republican frontrunner Donald Trump had refused to attend, partially in protest – he said – of Kelly's presence. Trump has criticized the journalist's questioning style towards him during Fox's first debate in 2015, and was offended that she would be invited to help watch over another event, so he chose to hold a fundraiser for veterans rather than show up. That move backfired, however – Trump suffered in polls immediately before the critical first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses, and ended up losing that race to Ted Cruz. Perhaps in response to that development, Trump was in attendance tonight despite having to face Kelly.
Iowa aside, Trump had performed well in the primaries thus far. And since the tenth Republican debate, he had enjoyed a strong showing on “Super Tuesday”, March 1, when he emerged victorious in seven out of eleven state primaries held that day. With results like this behind him, the Republican establishment had become panicked over the prospect of the highly controversial candidate's nomination. Marco Rubio had viciously and at times non-substantively criticized Trump, including on such subjects as the small size of Trump's hands. And in a surprising move, one-time Republican nominee Mitt Romney had come out to deliver a speech sharply denouncing the frontrunner and his candidacy, despite the fact that Romney had sought and gratefully accepted Trump's endorsement during the 2012 presidential campaign. Among other topics he discussed, Romney had suggested that voters in various states cynically vote for whichever other Republican candidate had the best chance of prevailing in their state, entirely for the purpose of ensuring that whoever wins, Trump loses.
In attendance tonight was the smallest selection of Republican candidates yet seen during this primary season, at only four: Businessman and frontrunner Donald Trump, Texas Senator Ted Cruz, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, and Ohio Governor John Kasich. Following disappointing results on Super Tuesday, Dr Ben Carson declined his invitation. While the retired neurosurgeon had not officially suspended his campaign, he did admit publicly that after failing to win even a single state on Tuesday, he saw no realistic path forward for him to the nomination.
As expected, Cruz and Rubio – the second and third-place GOP candidates, respectively – pounced on Trump relentlessly tonight, launching seemingly endless salvos on a scale not seen in previous debates of the hardly-sedate Republican primary season. Rubio called Trump out for championing the cause of bringing jobs back to America when, he said, Trump himself uses Chinese factories to produce his branded clothing. He also questioned the billionaire's business acumen, referencing numerous firms – such as Trump Steaks and Trump Mortgage – that Trump has run and which have failed. He even went so far as to call the much-discussed (at this point in the campaign) Trump University a scam, speaking of the ongoing lawsuits from former students who claim they were denied refunds even after it became clear the education being offered to them was virtually worthless. Trump defended himself against all of these attacks, but Rubio was aggressive, often speaking over him out of turn and repeatedly accusing him of failing to respond substantively. The Florida Senator's criticisms of Trump's hands were even brought up by moderators, with Trump saying that Rubio thought small hands must mean another part of Trump's anatomy is also small. “I guarantee you there's no problem,” Trump confidently declared on that point.
Cruz, meanwhile, appealed directly to Trump's supporters, telling them that he understood their anger towards the political establishment, but suggesting that Trump himself had been part of that establishment for four decades as he consistently supported liberal Democrats. He stated pointedly that Trump was not the solution to their problem. Trump responded by saying that he has supported numerous politicians over the years of all affiliations, and that as a businessman it was essential for him to “get along” with everyone. Cruz was more restrained than Rubio about speaking out of turn, but neither did he take kindly to being interrupted, and when it was Trump who attempted to speak over him, twice Cruz rebuked him. “Learn not to interrupt. Count to ten, Donald,” he said, and also “breathe, breathe.”
Moderator Megyn Kelly seemed to reference the tension between herself and Trump as she prepared to ask her first question of the frontrunner. She greeted him by saying “Mr. Trump, hi. How you doing?” and smiling pleasantly. Trump returned her exaggerated courtesy and politeness equivalently, but the awkwardness was obvious.
Important political issues were discussed, including the battle against ISIS, the Flint water scandal, and religious liberty versus gay marriage, though it must be admitted that even these were frequently segued by Cruz and Rubio into attacks on Trump. The only person on the stage not participating in the heated exchanges – which were just as passionate as Trump defended himself as they were in Cruz and Rubio's onslaughts – was Kasich, who discussed the issues calmly and arguably came out with the appearance of being the most civilized.
The evening concluded, as usual, with closing statements from each candidate. Rubio defined the coming 2016 election as being of critical importance, and stressed how vital it was to “get it right”. Cruz used his time to praise the US military and first responders, promising to support all of them. Trump stated, simply, that Americans would be very proud of their country in a few years if he were elected President.