With an eye on the general election, Donald Trump punched past his Republican rivals on Friday after embracing "flexibility" on illegal immigration, abandoning — at least momentarily — the hardline rhetoric that has fueled his presidential campaign as his critics cried foul.
"Believe it or not, I'm a unifier," Trump offered during a raucous rally Friday in suburban Detroit. "We are going to unify our country."
Republican adversary Ted Cruz wasn't having it: "Donald is telling us he will betray us on everything he's campaigned on," he said as he campaigned in Maine Friday, accusing his rival of shifting positions on temporary H-1B worker visas and on conservatism in general.
Trump's apparent moderation amid a war of insults between the Republican candidates marked a frenzied day on the campaign trail as the New York real estate mogul's grip on his party's presidential nomination appears to be tightening.
His confidence surging, Trump has followed a dominant Super Tuesday performance by embracing moderate tones, if not policies, on Planned Parenthood and race relations, while downplaying his temporary ban on Muslims entering the United States.
Trump's critics instead seized an opening during Thursday's debate as the businessman signaled his willingness to compromise on immigration, among other key issues.
He said he was retreating from the anti-visa position advocated in a position paper he posted on his website — one of the few specific policies his team has released over the course of the campaign.
"I'm changing. I'm changing. We need highly skilled people in this country, and if we can't do it, we'll get them in," he said in the debate. Just hours later, Trump's campaign released a statement again reversing his position.
And more broadly, Trump insisted that compromise would be part of any immigration reform.
"In terms of immigration — and almost anything else — there always has to be some, you know, tug and pull and deal," Trump added. "You have to be able to have some flexibility, some negotiation."
Cruz, and others, lashed out at Trump's sudden embrace of flexibility on the central issue of his campaign.
"Flexible is Washington code word that he's going to stick it to the people," Cruz said.
He did so even as his growing list of high-profile Republican rivals denounce the billionaire businessman as dangerous, a "phony" and a "con man" unfit for office.
Mitt Romney, the GOP's presidential nominee four years ago, declared Friday that he would not vote for Trump if he were the nominee. He joined a growing list of Republican leaders aggressively working to stop the former reality television star, who they claim is not a true Republican and lacks the experience and knowledge to lead the world's most powerful nation.
Romney told NBC's "Today" that he would "do everything within the normal political bounds to make sure we don't nominate Donald Trump."
Joining Romney's rebuke of the GOP front-runner were several leaders of the Republican foreign policy and national security committee who wrote an open letter pledging to oppose Trump's candidacy, in part, because of his "embrace of the expansive use of torture," and other controversial views.
In a statement Friday, Trump responded briefly to concerns, saying that he understands that the U.S. is "bound by laws and treaties" and he will not order U.S. military officials to violate or disobey those laws if elected president, attenuating comments he has made that he will bring back the use of waterboarding and "a hell of a lot worse," and that he would target the wives and children of suspected extremists if elected president.
"I will use every legal power that I have to stop these terrorist enemies," Trump said. "I do, however, understand that the United States is bound by laws and treaties and I will not order our military or other officials to violate those laws and will seek their advice on such matters."
At the GOP debate in Detroit Thursday, Trump insisted that extremists are "chopping off heads," noting that any reluctance to embrace waterboarding in such circumstances is.
"These animals over in the Middle East, that chop off heads, sitting around talking and seeing that we're having a hard problem with waterboarding? We should go for waterboarding and we should go tougher than waterboarding," he said Thursday. "That's my opinion."
Yet, facing logistical deadlines, there is little indication any of the creative options will materialize.
If his immigration shift did not irk conservatives, Trump's decision to cancel a scheduled appearance at the nation's largest annual gathering of conservative activists did.
"Very disappointed @realDonaldTrump has decided at the last minute to drop out of #CPAC -- his choice sends a clear message to conservatives," tweeted the American Conservative Union, which hosts the Conservative Political Action Conference.
Trump's campaign said the cancellation was due to newly scheduled rallies in Kansas and Florida.
Trump shrugged off Friday's fresh wave of criticism by unleashing a verbal assault on his Republican rivals at the Detroit-area rally.
He repeatedly called Rubio, "Little Marco," Cruz, "Lying Ted," and introduced a new pet name for Romney: "Stupid Mitt."
"He is a stupid person," the 2016 Republican front-runner said of the party's 2012 nominee.