HOUSTON — Billionaire front-runner Donald Trump called former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney "a fool" for delaying the release of his tax returns in the 2012 election. Then Trump said he would delay releasing his own tax returns, blaming the delay on an IRS audit.
"Mitt Romney looked like a fool when he delayed and delayed and delayed. . . . As far as my return, I want to file it. Except!" Trump said. "I can't do it until the audit is finished."
Earlier this week, Romney himself — who got Trump's endorsement in 2012 — had predicted that there would be a "bombshell" in Trump's tax returns.
When pressed by debate moderator Hugh Hewitt, Trump responded by insulting the ratings of Hewitt's conservative radio show.
"First of all, very few people listen to your radio show," Trump said. "I want to release my tax returns. But I can't release them while I'm under audit."
Trump came under relentlessly attack from Sens. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, including jabs about lawsuits alleging that Trump's "Trump University" defrauded its students.
"I want you to think about . . . having the Republican nominee on the stand in court, being cross-examined about whether he committed fraud," Cruz said.
Trump responded, as he has before, by pointing to poll numbers. He pointed out that Cruz was trailing him in many states — and that even polls in Texas showed Cruz might be in trouble.
"You're not beating Hillary," Cruz said, meaning the Democratic front-runner, Hillary Clinton.
"If I can't beat her, you're really going to get killed," Trump said to Cruz. Then, in mock-encouragement: "Keep fighting, keep fighting, keep swinging for the fences."
After 10 GOP debates, Trump was finally treated like the front-runner on Thursday in Houston: Rubio and Cruz tag-teamed in attacking Trump, calling him a poor businessman, a shaky conservative, and — turning around an attack previously used on Rubio — prone to repeating himself.
"So that's the only part of the plan? Just the lines?" Rubio said, hammering Trump for repeatedly saying his health-care plan was to "get rid of the lines" that block insurers from selling insurance across state lines. "Now he's repeating himself." The audience laughed, because Rubio had been mocked for robotically repeating the same talking point in a past debate, under pressure from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, now-departed from the GOP race.
Cruz then took up the attack, although with a different thesis: Where Rubio had blasted Trump for not having a health-care plan, Cruz attacked him for having a health-care plan that was too complicated and government-centric. He said that Trump's "socialized medicine" could lead to rationing that would deny elderly people knee replacements and hip replacements.
"Does the government pay for health care? Yes or no? Answer the question!" Cruz said.
"I do not want socialized medicine," Trump responded, but did not detail his health-care plans beyond a desire not to see people die on the sidewalk, a nod to some sort of medical safety net.
Thursday night's debate, telecast on CNN, comes less than a week before the critical Super Tuesday elections, when Republicans in 11 states will go to the polls, deciding the allocation of 595 GOP convention delegates.
Trump, who in the Nevada caucuses claimed more votes than Cruz and Rubio combined, claimed that he was reshaping the Republican Party, by drawing in a wider swath of people.
"We are building a new Republican Party: A lot of new people are coming in," Trump said, after a question about how he would attract Hispanic voters after making his calls for a mass deportation of undocumented immigrants. "I will do really well with Hispanics. I will do better than anybody on this stage . . . I'm telling you also, I'm bringing people, Democrats over, independents over, and we're building a much bigger, much stronger Republican Party."
Rubio and Cruz both challenged Trump's business record and his shifts on issues important to conservatives.
"We're always looking for converts into the conservative movement," Rubio said, meaning that Trump was a recent convert. He was responding to a question about the replacement a President Trump might appoint to replace the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, a conservative icon: "I have a doubt about whether Donald Trump, if he becomes president, will replace Justice Scalia with someone like Justice Scalia."
The other two candidates on the stage — Ohio Gov. John Kasich and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson — seemed happy to be bystanders while Rubio and Cruz fired upon Trump.
Kasich repeatedly condemned the arguments onstage and used his opening statement to make a nonpolitical statement, urging children to follow their dreams. "America is great, and you can do it," Kasich said.
Carson, as usual, was a mild presence on the stage — but still showed a gift for vivid metaphor. Asked how he would evaluate a potential Supreme Court appointee's record, Carson responded: "The fruit salad of their life, is what I would look at."