The seven Republican candidates did not hold back in the least from attacking each other’s records during Thursday night’s Fox Business Network debate in North Charleston.
Candidates, particularly the three perceived frontrunners, spent much their time criticizing their rivals as weak or inexperienced on foreign policy or flip-flopping on immigration — or even that they were born in Canada.
Donald Trump insisted others were questioning if Texas US Sen. Ted Cruz — who was born in Calgary to an American mother and Cuban father — was eligible to seek the White House. Trump said “lawyers” were raising questions under the Constitution’s requirement that the president be a “natural born citizen,” which Trump implied meant only those born inside American borders could be eligible.
“Here’s the problem. (If) I win and I choose him as my vice-presidential candidate and the Democrats sue because we can’t take him along for the ride,” he said. “I don’t like that.”
Cruz responded that he is a “natural-born” citizen under any reasonable interpretation of the Constitution, since his mother was an American citizen,”
Cruz hinted Trump was only raising the issue because he’d caught the businessman in Iowa polls. He also noted Trump himself in September had checked into Cruz’s eligibility and found him to be “in fine shape.”
“Since September, the Constitution hasn’t changed. But the poll numbers have,” Cruz said, implying Trump was only raising the issue because the Texas senator had caught up to him in Iowa polling.
Thursday night appeared to signify the end of Cruz’s and Trump’s implicit agreement not to personally attack each other. The shift in tone comes as recent polls suggest the two are in a statistical dead heat (difference within the polling margin of error) for the Iowa caucuses later this month.
Cruz also had to deal with Florida US Sen. Marco Rubio several times in the debate’s second half. Rubio accused Cruz of switching his positions on immigration, ethanol subsidies, and crop insurance since beginning his campaign, “because they told you it would help you in Iowa. That is not consistent conservatism. That is political calculation.”
Cruz claimed Rubio was distorting the truth to distract from his own support of a 2013 immigration reform package that conservatives argued was a “amnesty” for those in the country illegally.
“I appreciate your dumping your opposition research folder on the debate stage,” he responded.
“No. They’re your record,” Rubio quipped.
“At least half of the things Marco said are flat-out false,” Cruz answered.
Former Florida governor Jeb Bush again called for Trump’s to reconsider his proposed ban on all travel into the US by foreign Muslims, claiming it hurt America’s relationship with allies in the Mideast. “We don’t have to have Syrian refugees come into our country, but all Muslims? Seriously? What kind of signal does that send to the rest of the world that the United States is a serious player in creating peace and security?”
Debate moderator Neil Cavuto pressed on Bush’s description of the ban as “unhinged,” noting Trump’s surge in South Carolina polls after he proposed it. Bush answered he could understand why people are “angry and scared,” but answered a presidential candidate “cannot make rash statements and expect the rest of the world to respond as though it’s just politics.”
Trump repeated his call for a “temporary” ban. “I didn’t say permanently. I said temporarily,” he insisted. “I have many great Muslim friends. And some of them, I will say not all, have called me and said, ‘Donald, thank you very much. You’re exposing an unbelievable problem and we have to get to the bottom of it.'” Trump did not identify the friend he said expressed those views.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich supported a “pause” on allowing Syrian refugees into the country, but warned against grouping all Muslims together in a blanket ban. “If we try to call everybody the same thing, we can’t do it. That’s just not acceptable. But I think a pause on Syrian refugees has been exactly right for all the governors that have called for it (including himself).”
Kasich and Ben Carson tended to avoid attacking their fellow candidates. Carson said such sniping had doomed the party in 2012. “Republicans tore themselves apart,” he said. “We have to stop this because, if we manage to damage ourselves, and we lose the next election and a progressive gets in there and they get 2 or 3 Supreme Court picks, this nation is over as we know it. We’ve got to look at the big picture here.”
Chris Christie reserved much of his verbal ammunition for President Obama Thursday night. He criticized the president’s executive orders tightening gun background checks, accusing the president of acting like “an petulant child” in an attempt to go around Congress. “The American people have rejected your agenda and now you’re trying to go around it? That’s not right. It’s not constitutional. And we are going to come kick your rear end out of the White House this fall.”
Perhaps because of the candidates frequently going over their time limits and using debate rules that allowed them to respond to personal criticism, the debate ran nearly a half hour behind schedule. Empty seats were noticeable among the crowd at North Charleston Coliseum as the debate went past 11 p.m.
Thursday’s debate was the last on the Republican side before candidates will hold a second debate in Greenville next month.