In the fraught final two weeks before the Iowa caucuses, a rowdy, rambunctious group of agitated Republican candidates rehearsed their talking points and took well-honed snipes at each other in the first GOP debates of 2016 — and the sixth of the cycle — in Charleston, South Carolina. The debates, which aired on Fox Business, touched on gun control, ISIS, immigration policy, tax reform, and the utter devastation that would ensue from a Hillary Clinton presidency.
As before, a minor-league debate was scheduled at happy hour to collect the runoff candidates whose poll numbers failed to rise above a certain level. On deck for the warmup act were former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, and — in a fall from grace (or at least poll stature) — former Hewlett-Packard exec Carly Fiorina. (Kentucky Senator Rand Paul was invited to the kiddie-table debate, but opted not to show.) Assembled for the mainstage debate were Donald Trump, Texas Senator Ted Cruz, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, Dr. Ben Carson, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, and Ohio Gov. John Kasich.
Here were a few of the more memorable skirmishes from Thursday night’s debates.
Rubio Gets Off Easy
Marco Rubio emerged unscathed, flying underneath many of the gladiatorial bouts rumbling overhead. He lay low, and, for the most part, didn’t suffer much in the way of seeing his credibility impugned, his policies challenged, or any of his lies and mischaracterizations called out.
He relentlessly pummeled Cruz, when he assailed the Texas senator for switching his positions on immigration and on ethanol, which Rubio said was a transparent bid to garner Iowan support: “That is not consistent conservatism,” Rubio said. “That is political calculation.”
“I appreciate your dumping your oppo [opposition] research folder on the debate stage,” Cruz quipped, and accused Rubio of trafficking in outright falsehoods.
“No, it’s your record,” Rubio fired back.
(Bush curtly described the routine as a “back and forth between two senators — back bench senators”)
Rubio went unchallenged repeating his now familiar outlandish claims against Barack Obama, namely that he would take away every American’s gun if he could. Rubio said:
Look, the Second Amendment is not an option. It is not a suggestion. It is a constitutional right of every American to be able to protect themselves and their families. I am convinced that if this president could confiscate every gun in America, he would. I am convinced that this president, if he could get rid of the Second Amendment, he would. I am convinced because I see how he works with his attorney general, not to defend the Second Amendment, but to figure out ways to undermine it.
Rubio’s absurd characterization of Obama as an overzealous gun snatcher out to erase the Second Amendment has been proved patently false. And, shortly after he said it, his campaign was hawking blood red t-shirts with the line about the Second Amendment being “not an option” stamped on them.
He drove home his depiction of the president as one who has repeatedly ignored and stifled American exceptionalism, not out of ineptitude necessarily, but out of a philosophical inclination to view the U.S. as unremarkable: Obama, he said, “wasn’t interested in fixing America. We elected someone as president who wants to change America, who wants to make it more like the rest of the world,” which is why he has undermined the Constitution and cut deals with our enemies, Rubio said. He also insisted that constitutional rights don’t come from government, they come from God — echoing the far-right conservative Christian tack he took in a recent ad.
Rubio’s campaign has emphasized his youth and message of a better tomorrow, but he has always set himself up in direct contraposition to Hillary Clinton. In his final remarks he scraped away much of his well-honed optimism and forward-looking demeanor, going dark and apocalyptic with a solemn warning: “If we elect Hillary Clinton,” he said, “the next four years will be worse than the last eight, and our children will be the first Americans ever to inherit a diminished country.”
Cruz vs. Trump
The bromance is over. Trump and Cruz entered Thursday night’s debate without the slightest pretense of cooperation and friendship, deriding and disingenuously offering each other a VP spot.
Going into the debate, Cruz was dogged both by reports that he had failed to disclose a Goldman Sachs loan that he took out to finance his first Senate campaign, and by questions about the Canada-born senator’s eligibility as a “natural born citizen.”
Cruz flicked away the former by dismissing the source of the reports — The New York Times. The latter proved more troublesome.
It was Trump who began raising questions about Cruz’s citizenship, and the claim was initially treated as an absurdly outlandish (not to mention more than a little desperate) move on the tycoon’s part to weaken his most significant challenger in Iowa. But the issue remarkably gained currency from diverse corners, including conservative Trump supporters, constitutional law scholars, and even Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL), who has stated his intention to bring legal action against Cruz should he win the nomination.
“I”m not going to be taking legal advice from Donald Trump,” Cruz said, and suggested that by Trump’s logic — which he said derived from the findings of a “left-wing judicial activist” — even Trump himself would not be eligible to run for president, since his mother was a Scottish citizen. (Trump reminded Cruz that he was actually born in the U.S. — “Big difference.”) Trump blustered, but Cruz carried the round, and even got The Donald to sheepishly admit that the only reason he had introduced the issue was because of Cruz’s surging poll numbers.
In response to Trump’s impish choice of music at his rallies — Bruce Springsteen’s “Born In The U.S.A.” — Cruz had suggested before the debate that perhaps Trump would be better off playing “New York, New York” since he espouses “New York values.” Asked to elaborate exactly what he meant by that, the erudite Ivy League-educated senator delivered a sneering, preening description of what he believed heartland America thought of the Big Apple: “Everyone understands that the values in New York City are socially liberal or pro-abortion or pro- gay-marriage, focus around money and the media,” he said.
“Not a lot of conservatives come out of Manhattan,” Cruz said, inverting a similarly charged remark from Trump in the days leading up to the debate, accusing Cruz of being a false evangelical because his father was from Cuba.
Although he may have won the citizenship bout, the “New York values” gambit blew up Cruz’s face, as all he did was tee Trump up to deliver an uncharacteristically sober and lucid defense of his home city. Trump described in visceral detail the devastation of 9/11, and the bravery and resilience he witnessed in the city’s resurgence. It may have been trite and opportunistic, but it shut Cruz up.
Cruz began his closing remarks simply and solemnly with the words: “13 Hours,” referring to Transformers director Michael Bay’s fictionalized account of the Benghazi attacks, which opened in theaters Friday. He concluded by speaking to all those “maddened by political correctness,” to members of the military and law enforcement, and to the first responders: “This. Will. End,” he said. “I will have your back.”
Christie’s Terrible, No Good, Very Bad Night
Nobody brought up Christie’s infamous arm-in-arm with President Obama — but they didn’t have to. The New Jersey governor’s waverings on Common Core and gun control, and his support for Judge Sonia Sotomayor’s confirmation to the U.S. Supreme Court were enough fodder for Republican rivals to paint him as a watered-down Democrat.
Christie claimed that he had never supported Sotomayor — but those following the debate on Twitter were quick to point out that he, in fact, had.
Christie rallied at the end with a vociferous aria in defense of law enforcement and national defense, chastising the Obama administration for what he characterized as tepid support of police officers and soldiers, and its laissez faire attitude toward states’ legalization of marijuana.
“We need a fighter for this country again,” he said. “I’ve lived my whole life fighting — fighting for things that I believe in, fighting for justice and to protect people from crime and terrorism.”
Fiorina Really Wants Clinton to Notice Her
In the feisty undercard debate, each of the three warmup candidates played nice with each other as they took aim at familiar targets —the incompetence of the Obama administration, the dubious ethics of Hillary Clinton, the fallacies of Democratic economic policy. But all that anyone will remember is Fiorina’s schoolgirl taunts aimed at Hillary Clinton.
Fiorina invoked Clinton in both her opening and closing statements. She kicked off the debate by saying: “Unlike another woman in this race, I actually love spending time with my husband.” (The question was “What is your assessment of the economy right now?”)
And in the closing remarks, while both Santorum and Huckabee cited their experience fighting the “Clinton machine,” Fiorina took a less résumé-focussed tack. As she has done in past debates, Carly Fiorina used her final statement to argue that viewers’ desire to see her debate Hillary Clinton one-on-one was reason enough to give her the GOP nomination — as if all the Republican caucus wants from their nominee is someone who can put on a good show. (Oh wait.)
In a post-debate discussion with Chris Matthews, the MSNBC host hammered her repeatedly with the question: “Do the Clintons have a real marriage?” All Fiorina would say is, “They’ve been married for a long time.”
The Disappearance of Dr. Carson
As Dr. Carson careens into Iowa, his campaign is hemorrhaging talent, and his poll numbers continue to take the nose dive that started shortly after the Paris attacks (it turns out being visibly ignorant of international affairs only gets you so far). The retired neurosurgeon leavened his lack of substance with corny jokes and folksy anecdotes, which left commentators on Twitter scratching their heads and wondering how anyone ever took this guy seriously even for a moment.
“I was going to ask you to wake me up,” he told a moderator. If the good doctor had decided to take a nap, nobody on either side of the TV screen would blame him. Or, for that matter, notice he was gone.
Photo: Republican U.S. presidential candidate businessman Donald Trump (L) and Senator Ted Cruz speak simultaneously at the Fox Business Network Republican presidential candidates debate in North Charleston, South Carolina, January 14, 2016. REUTERS/Randall Hill