Once again, Donald Trump stole the show without actually appearing on the show.
During Fox News’ two-hour voter summit on Wednesday night, the four Republican hopefuls working frantically to keep pace with Trump took turns pitching themselves as the best alternative to the billionaire frontrunner.
Texas senator Ted Cruz positioned himself as the best general election candidate, citing polling that showed he would beat former secretary of state Hillary Clinton should she capture the Democratic nomination.
“Donald consistently loses to Hillary. I consistently beat Hillary,” Cruz told Fox News’ Megyn Kelly during the live interview in Houston.
“And so the question right now is how do we prevent nominating a candidate who loses the general election – or, for that matter, if Donald wins the general election, who the heck knows what he’d do as president?”
Cruz also reminded voters that he is the only candidate so far to prove he can beat Trump, having won the Iowa caucuses with the strong support of evangelical Christians.
Trump is riding high after winning easily in Nevada – his third consecutive victory in an early-state nominating contest – and strengthening his position heading into the multi-state Super Tuesday elections.
Florida senator Marco Rubio, who has yet to win a nominating contest, cast himself as a party unifier with the appeal to grow its base.
“I can win. I can unify this party. I can grow this party, and I will win this election,” Rubio told Kelly via satellite. “The Democrats desperately do not want to run against me. That’s why they attack me more than anyone else in this race.”
Cruz said he believed it was now a “three-person” race between himself, Trump and Rubio. The two senators have clashed fiercely in recent days as they try to establish themselves as Trump’s strongest challengers.
Ohio governor John Kasich and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson were pressed to defend the legitimacy of their campaigns as some Republicans have accused them of siphoning away votes from the senators.
“If I were to get out, Donald Trump would win Ohio and that would be the end of it,” Kasich said, expressing confidence that he would win his home state despite a recent poll that showed Trump edging him out of first.
“We intend to keep going, Megyn, we’re not stopping and I’m not giving up,” Kasich reiterated. “That’s just the end of it.”
Carson took a different tack, arguing that he is the only candidate not beholden to political and media elites, the two least popular groups in the 2016 elections.
“Why do I stay here?” he asked rhetorically. “It’s like losing a child … It’s a horrendous thing. You would do anything to keep it from happening.
“Well, I feel like we’re in the process of losing our country. It’s in critical condition right now.”
At the start of the show, Kelly said Trump was unable to attend as he had a “conflicting campaign event”, prompting snickers from the audience.
Kelly laughed. “He does!” she exclaimed, to more laugher from the audience.
Trump had previously skipped a Fox News debate co-moderated by Kelly after he accused her of adversarial questioning in the first debate.
On Thursday, the Republican candidates, including Trump, will face off on a debate stage in Houston, just five days before Super Tuesday.
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