The mainstage Republican presidential debate Thursday night was full of fireworks, with heated words between Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, Cruz and Marco Rubio, Rubio and Chris Christie, and Trump and Jeb Bush.
They also vied for who could offer the harshest criticism of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, accusing Obama of undermining the Constitution, the military, and other American institutions, and saying Clinton would do more of the same.
John Kasich and Ben Carson stayed out of the arguments for the most part, with Kasich offering more policy proposals than rhetoric and Carson being soft-spoken as usual.
As the seven leading candidates took questions from Fox Business Channel moderators in North Charleston, S.C., much of the heat came from the rivalry between Trump and Cruz, who has been gaining on him in polls. Business mogul Trump, who until recently had been praising Cruz, has been questioning the senator’s eligibility to become president, as he was born in Canada, although his mother was a U.S. citizen. Cruz has called Trump the embodiment of “New York values,” which is decidedly not a compliment.
When Fox’s Maria Bartiromo asked Cruz what he meant by that, the U.S. senator from Texas replied, “I think most people know exactly what New York values are.” When Bartiromo pressed him, he said, “There are many, many wonderful, wonderful working men and women in the state of New York. But everyone understands that the values in New York City are socially liberal or pro-abortion or pro-gay-marriage, focused around money and the media. … Not a lot of conservatives come out of Manhattan.”
Cruz also criticized New York’s leading daily newspaper, saying The New York Times did a “hit piece” when it reported his failure to disclose $1 million loans he’d received from Goldman Sachs and Citibank — a failure he called a “paperwork error.”
On the eligibility question, some legal experts say Cruz fulfills the constitutional requirement that the president be a “natural-born citizen”; others do not. The Texas senator said Trump didn’t raise the issue until Cruz began rising in the polls. “The Constitution hasn’t changed,” Cruz said. “But the poll numbers have.”
Trump responded that he thought Cruz has only a 4 percent or 5 percent chance of becoming president, but he spun out the scenario that he could pick Cruz as his running mate and the Democrats would bring a lawsuit questioning Cruz’s eligibility to serve. “There’s a big question mark on your head,” Trump said to Cruz. “And you can’t do that to the party.”
Cruz responded, “I’m not going to be taking legal advice from Donald Trump,” and he dismissed a legal authority cited by Trump, Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe, as “a left-wing judicial activist” and “major Hillary Clinton supporter.”
Cruz and Rubio, the junior U.S. senator from Florida, clashed over taxes and immigration. Cruz contended that Rubio’s plan would impose higher taxes, the equivalent of a value-added tax, on business than Cruz’s proposal for a flat tax, while Rubio ridiculed Cruz’s assertion that he would simplify taxes so much that the Internal Revenue Service could be abolished. “You may rename the IRS but you are not going to abolishes the IRS, because there has to be some agency that's going to collect your VAT tax,” Rubio said.
When New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie tried to get the tax discussion back to the subject that started it, Social Security and Medicare, Rubio tried to chime in again, and Christie interrupted him, saying, “You already had your chance, Marco, and you blew it.”
Christie and Rubio also had words over an ad that painted Christie as friendly to President Obama’s policies. It was run by a political action committee on Rubio’s behalf, and Rubio said he would not apologize for it. Rubio further said Christie had supported Obama Supreme Court pick Sonia Sotomayor, was pro-gun control, and had donated to Planned Parenthood — all of which Christie denied. (The Washington Post has a fact-check with its transcript; you can see the transcript here, and click on the highlighted text for the fact-checking.)
Christie, seeking to show he’s no supporter of Obama, called the president “a petulant child” and Tuesday’s State of the Union address “story time.” And in a statement directed to Obama, he said, “We are going to kick your rear end out of the White House come this fall” — even though Obama, of course, is not running and cannot run for a third term.
The candidates largely denounced Obama’s executive order expanding background checks for gun sales and positioned themselves as strong supporters of the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms.
They denounced just about everything else about him too. But in 2008, we elected a president that didn’t want to fix America,” Rubio said. “He wants to change America. We elected a president that doesn’t believe in the Constitution. He undermines it. We elected a president that is weakening America on the global stage. We elected a president that doesn’t believe in the free enterprise system. This election has to be about reversing all of that damage.” The candidates also returned to other familiar themes, such as saying Obama has been ineffective in fighting terrorism and has weakened the U.S. military.
Whatever their differences with one another, some of the candidates said they would favor anyone on the stage over Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton, although Trump got in a dig at former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, saying, “We don’t need a weak person being president of the United States, OK? Because that’s what we’d get if it were Jeb.”
Bush, for his part, called Trump’s proposal for a ban on Muslims entering the U.S. counterproductive, while Trump claimed he has Muslim friends who approve of it. Bush also touted his accomplishments in Florida, as Kasich promoted his as a U.S. senator and in his current position as Ohio’s governor. In a discussion of supporting the police, who some conservatives say are being undermined by protests over use of force, Kasich separated himself from the others by striking a conciliatory tone, saying police and the communities they serve must work together.
“One of the issues has got to be the integration of both community and police. Community has to understand that that police officer wants to get home at night, and not — not to lose their life. Their family is waiting for them. At the same time, law enforcement understands there are people in the community who not only think that the system doesn’t work for them, but works against them.”
Carson, the retired neurosurgeon who has been fading after an earlier surge, did little to distinguish himself from the other candidates. In his closing statement, though, he positioned himself as an alternative to the political establishment.
“In recent travels around this country, I’ve encountered so many Americans who are discouraged and angry as they watch our freedom, our security and the American dream slipping away under an unresponsive government that is populated by bureaucrats and special interest groups,” he said. “We’re not going to solve this problem with traditional politics. The only way we’re going to solve this problem is with we, the people. And I ask you to join me in truth and honesty and integrity.”
For more, go to the Post’s annotated transcript.