- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 3, 2016

With a party civil war breaking out around him, Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump on Thursday forcefully rejected any ties to racist groups and declared himself a willing negotiator who would, within limits, work with politicians in Washington to strike deals on immigration or any other issue.

He showed his first signs of “flexibility” on immigration, announcing that he was dropping his opposition to guest-worker programs and now wants to try to keep more foreign highly skilled workers in the U.S.

“I’m changing it, and I’m softening the position,” Mr. Trump said as the remaining four candidates squared off in a debate in Detroit, adding that voters should thank him for changing his stances when he learns something new.

“I’ve never seen a successful person who wasn’t flexible, who didn’t have a certain degree of flexibility,” he said.

But that opened new questions about how far the billionaire businessman is willing to go in altering his campaign promises, such as building the border fence or deporting illegal immigrants.

His opponents said he could help ease those worries if he gave permission to The New York Times to release the tape of an off-the-record session he had with the newspaper, where he reportedly said he would be flexible.

SEE ALSO: Trump says he’ll support GOP nominee, even if it’s not him

“You could resolve this issue very quickly by simply releasing the New York Times tape,” said Sen. Ted Cruz, Mr. Trump’s closest competitor. Mr. Trump flatly refused, saying he respects the reporting process too much to revoke his own off-the-record protections.

The debate, hosted by Fox News, saw some of the sharpest exchanges of the campaign, with a heavy focus on Mr. Trump’s record. He found himself supporting the record of Trump University, which he is defending in court against accusations from students who said it was a fraud.

“It’s a minor civil case,” the businessman said, waving it aside. But his opponents were not so willing to let it go.

“He’s trying to do to the American people what he did to the people who signed up for this course. He’s making promises he has no intention of keeping,” said Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida.

Mr. Trump also explained some of his recent campaign hiccups, including on one Sunday political talk show failing to denounce the Ku Klux Klan.

“I totally disavow the Ku Klux Klan, I totally disavow David Duke. I’ve been doing it for two weeks,” Mr. Trump said.

Mr. Cruz said the repeated questions Mr. Trump is facing show how difficult a time his campaign would have against likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

“Is this the debate you want playing out in the general election?” the Texan said about the Trump University lawsuit.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich, meanwhile, found himself having to justify why he is still in the race.

“It’s now March madness, and were heading up north to my turf,” he said, pointing to the upcoming primaries in the Midwest.

He cited his long experience in Washington as proof that he is the person Republicans need to stand against Mrs. Clinton.

“There are a lot of people out there yearning for somebody who’s going to bring America back,” he said.

Mr. Trump’s candidacy has upended the Republican Party and left deep divisions that show little sign of repair.

Earlier in the day, 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney took the step of denouncing Mr. Trump and demanding that Republican voters reject him, in the most stunning display of Republican-on-Republican violence yet in this campaign season.

“Here’s what I know. Donald Trump is a phony, a fraud,” said Mr. Romney, speaking in Utah. “His promises are as worthless as a degree from Trump University. He’s playing the American public for suckers: He gets a free ride to the White House, and all we get is a lousy hat.”

Sen. John McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee, added his voice to Mr. Romney’s, calling Mr. Trump “uninformed and indeed dangerous” when it came to national security issues.

“I want Republican voters to pay close attention to what our party’s most respected and knowledgeable leaders and national security experts are saying about Mr. Trump, and to think long and hard about who they want to be our next commander in chief and leader of the free world,” said Mr. McCain, who got into a spat last year after Mr. Trump seemed to question his heroism for having been shot down as a Navy pilot over Vietnam.

Their criticism underscored the fear coursing through the party establishment that the billionaire real estate mogul and reality TV star is running away with the nomination.

Mr. Romney, who himself is an enormously wealthy businessman, called on Republicans to vote for any of the other contenders in a bid to stop Mr. Trump from clinching the nomination before the party convention this summer.

He hit Mr. Trump on every front, questioning his business prowess, his treatment of women and his ability to serve as commander in chief or as a role model for American children.

“Think of Donald Trump’s personal qualities: the bullying, the greed, the showing off, the misogyny, the absurd third-grade theatrics,” said Mr. Romney. “We have long referred to him as ‘The Donald.’ He is the only person in America to whom we have added an article before his name. It wasn’t because he had attributes we admired.”

The reaction was fierce on both sides of the Trump question, with rank-and-file voters flooding call-in shows to weigh in. Some said Mr. Romney was voicing their own concerns, but Trump supporters were furious, pointing out that the former one-term Massachusetts governor had no problem accepting Mr. Trump’s endorsement in the 2012 race.

The attack was even more odd because of similarities between Mr. Trump and Mr. Romney, who used to hold pro-choice views, faced questions over his business record and tax history, and ran into trouble with Hispanic voters for his hard-line stance — and what immigrant rights activists said was harsh rhetoric — on immigration.

Holding a rally in Maine later in the day, Mr. Trump fired back with a barrage of insults at Mr. Romney, saying the former governor was too scared to take him on in this campaign.

“Mitt is a failed candidate,” Mr. Trump said.

Mr. Trump has shocked analysts with his power to draw voters. Despite being atop the polls since soon after he announced his bid in June and taking heavy fire in the form of attacks on his business record, his demeanor and his past stances such as favoring abortion rights, Mr. Trump has proved to be a powerhouse campaigner.

He has won 10 of the 15 states that have voted so far, while Mr. Cruz has won four and Mr. Rubio has won one.

When total votes across all the contests are tallied up, Mr. Trump has won about 34 percent, Mr. Cruz has won 28 percent, and Mr. Rubio has claimed 22 percent. But the margin between Mr. Cruz and Mr. Rubio can be almost entirely attributed to Mr. Cruz’s victory in his home state of Texas on Tuesday.

Mr. Rubio, meanwhile, argues that he’s got his key contest coming up March 15 when Florida votes in a winner-take-all race for delegates to the nominating convention.

Also voting on March 15 is Ohio, where Mr. Kasich hopes to win his first state and bolster his weaker argument for remaining in the race.

Not on the stage Thursday night was retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who announced this week he no longer saw a political path to victory in the race. He is set to announce his plans Friday at a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference.

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