The ironclad commitment each Republican presidential candidate gave to support the party’s nominee – no matter who that may be – is no more.
Donald Trump and Ohio Gov. John Kasich explicitly renounced the commitment they’d made last fall, while Texas Sen. Ted Cruz said he’d have a hard time supporting Trump. The comments, which could reshape an already raucous GOP primary race, came during a town hall in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, one week ahead of the state’s key primary.
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Here are six takeaways from the town hall, which aired on CNN and was moderated by Anderson Cooper:
Backing away from the pledge
Initially designed to stymie the threat of a Trump independent run, the real-estate mogul’s Republican foes have been hamstrung by the signed pledge they all gave to the Republican National Committee in September to back the winner of the party’s nominating contest for months.
That changed Tuesday night, starting with Cruz, who cited Trump’s recent tweets about his wife, Heidi Cruz.
“I’m not in the habit of supporting someone who attacked my wife and attacked my family. I think that is going beyond the line,” he said. “I’m not an easy person to tick off, but when you go after my wife, when you go after my daughters, that does it.”
Cruz, however, didn’t explicitly say he would oppose Trump’s nomination.
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So Trump let him off the hook.
He said Cruz looked “tormented” trying to answer Cooper’s “very simple question.”
“I don’t want his support. I don’t need his support. I want him to be comfortable,” Trump said.
For his part, Trump said he was scrapping the pledge altogether, saying he’s “been treated very unfairly” in the contest by the RNC and the party’s establishment.
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Kasich, too, backed off his pledge – saying he shouldn’t have raised his hand when the entire Republican field was asked at the first debate last year whether they’d back the eventual nominee. “Probably shouldn’t have even answered that question, but it was the first debate, and what the heck,” he said.
He said he’s been “disturbed by some of the things I have seen,” without placing blame on any candidate by name.
“If the nominee is somebody that I think is really hurting the country and dividing the country, I can’t stand behind them,” Kasich said.
Asked whether Trump fit the bill as someone who is hurting the country, Kasich said that’s up to voters, and wouldn’t answer for himself. “That’s too much below the belt,” he said.
Trump ridicules reporter, defends aide
Trump handled the controversy over his campaign manager’s arrest earlier Tuesday on a simple battery charge in his signature style – defending the aide and attacking the accuser.
He came prepared for questions.
In his pocket, he carried print-outs of Fields’ initial description. She’d said Lewandowski “grabbed me tightly by the arm and yanked me down. I almost fell to the ground, but was able to maintain my balance.”
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He mocked Fields’ description, saying Lewandowski had really just brushed past her and that she didn’t come anywhere close to stumbling to the ground. “She says, ‘Ohh, look at my arm,’” Trump said.
“She’s not a baby,” he added.
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Trump said Fields had grabbed his arm, as well, in an effort to get his attention and ask a question after his news conference had already ended.
Asked if he’d press charges against her, Trump said: “I don’t know. Maybe I should, right? Cause you know what, she was grabbing me.”
Each time he defended Lewandowski – saying he wouldn’t fire his campaign manager – Trump also pivoted to a theme: Loyalty.
“I’m a loyal person. I’m going to be loyal for the country. I’m going to be loyal for Wisconsin,” Trump said.
Trump on wife attacks: ‘I didn’t start it’
Trump also refused to back down from a fight when Cooper asked him about the fight with Cruz that involves both of their wives.
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“I didn’t start it,” Trump said.
Cooper shot back: “With all due respect, that’s the argument of a 5-year-old.”
“No it’s not,” Trump responded. “Exactly that thinking is the problem of this country. I didn’t start this.”
The dust-up started when an anti-Trump super PAC ran an ad aimed at Mormon women in Utah featuring an unclad Melania Trump modeling photo, warning that she’d be the first lady if Trump is elected.
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For that, Trump blamed Cruz. On Twitter, he warned Cruz to “be careful” or he’d “spill the beans” on his wife. Then, Trump retweeted an unflattering image of Heidi Cruz, alongside a more flattering photo of Melania Trump.
There’s no evidence the super PAC, headed by Republican strategist Liz Mair, coordinated with Cruz. Doing so would have been illegal. But Trump said the two were in cahoots all the same, saying that he “would be willing to bet” Cruz wrote the ad.
So Trump had to respond in kind.
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“I don’t let things go so easily,” Trump said.
Kasich stays above the fray
All eyes were on Kasich heading into the town hall to see whether he would go after Cruz.
The Texas senator and his campaign is raising the pressure on Kasich to drop out of the race. Cruz’s main super PAC launched a tough attack ad on Kasich in Wisconsin, pumping $500,000 into a spot branding him a “liberal governor.”
Kasich’s top strategist, John Weaver, had hit back hard on Twitter, saying: “Cruz – with 0 friends, 0 record, 0 vision, 0 chance – decides to lie about @johnkasich. Desperate? Trump right on 1 thing: ‘lying Ted.’”
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But when Kasich got on the debate stage, his typical easygoing demeanor was on display. In contrast to Trump’s performance earlier in the night, Kasich didn’t hesitate to criticize his staff’s hardball tactics.
Of Weaver’s tweet, he said: “Sometimes, he gets a little tweet-happy, and I don’t like that, OK? And I will have a word with him about it.”
As for the criticism from Cruz, Kasich said, “That’s OK, I can take it.”
In a moment that got one of the loudest cheers from the audience all night, Kasich argued that the campaign’s bitter, personal moments have set a bad example for children.
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“If name-calling, bringing in spouses, ripping each other below the belt and wrestling in the mud is the new politics, we all need to stand against it. Our children are watching. This is America,” he said. “I’m not going to go down there. … I could screw up, but I hope not.”
Cruz gets personal
Cruz’s go-to option to win over women: his mother.
“I have grown up surrounded by strong women. My mom is someone that I admire immensely,” he said when a questioner asked what he was going to do to convince women to support him.
It was a rare, revealing personal moment for a candidate who focuses more on demonstrating his rock-ribbed conservatism and policy prowess.
He said his mother’s father “was a drunk, and he didn’t think women should be educated.” Nonetheless, she made her way to Rice University and worked for Shell – on the way, refusing to learn how to type so that she wouldn’t have “some man stop her and say, ‘Sweetheart, would you type this for me?’”
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He said she wanted to be able to answer with a clean conscience: “Look, I would love to help you out, but I don’t know how to type. I guess you’re going to have to use me as a computer programmer, instead.”
Cruz also pointed to his wife, Heidi, a Goldman Sachs executive, and said he’s been surrounded by strong women his entire life, and that he believes “every issue is a women’s issue.”
The Texas senator wrapped up his answer by pointing to his two daughters.
“I want to make sure that they have a world that they can live in where they have the opportunity to do anything,” he said.
It took Trump some time to answer when he was asked about the last time he apologized for anything.
“Oh, wow,” he said, as the audience laughed.
He finally came up with a response: “I apologized to my mother years ago for using foul language. I apologize to my wife for not being presidential on occasion. She’s always saying, ‘Darling, be more presidential.’”
What really bothered Melania Trump, he said, was the time he’d repeated an audience member’s vulgar description of Cruz.
Trump joked about the constant controversies surrounding his decisions to amplify the remarks of his supporters. Dismissing the Cruz remark, he said that “it was just a repeat, but that didn’t work out too well.”
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“My biggest problems are repeats and retweets. I don’t get in a problem with what I say – it’s when I repeat something. I think I’m gonna be careful,” he said.
Cooper suggested that Trump could “learn from behavior and not retweet things.”
Laughing, Trump said, “I know. That I agree. That I agree.”