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GOP Candidates Snipe And Spar In Combative Sixth Debate

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  

Fighting Ignorance With A Quiet Call For Peace

As a general rule, I loathe both Holocaust and slavery comparisons.

Sadly, such comparisons have become more common in recent years even though, almost by definition, they trivialize two of the greatest crimes in human history. When GOP senatorial candidate John Raese declared that having to place “smoke-free environment” stickers on buildings he owned was the “same thing” as Jews being forced to wear yellow Stars of David and when eventual GOP presidential candidate Ben Carson claimed the Affordable Care Act “in a way … is slavery,” what was revealed was not some new insight on stop-smoking campaigns and healthcare reform, but, rather, the historical illiteracy, incapacity for reverence, and utter imbecility of the two men and anyone dumb enough to believe them.

So yes, ordinarily I loathe such comparisons. Yet I’m here to make one. Because, as more than one observer has noted, the parallels between the rise of Adolf Hitler and that of Donald Trump have become too neon to ignore.

Like Hitler, Trump has watched approvingly as his followers use violence to silence hecklers, dissenters, and protesters.

Like Hitler, Trump offers few real plans or strategies for confronting the nation’s challenges, giving voters instead the assurance that he, by force of personality alone, will defeat them.

Like Hitler, Trump has presented the electorate a scapegoat for its fears and vulnerabilities. Hitler gave his people the Jews. Trump has given his the Muslims.

Like Hitler, Trump proposes to register, surveil and restrict the scapegoat populace. Nor, like Hitler, is he overly concerned with the niceties of civil or human rights. “We’re going to have to do certain things that were frankly unthinkable a year ago,” he has said.

It is in that context that Rose Hamid stood up last week in South Carolina.

Hamid, a 56-year-old Muslim flight attendant attending a Trump rally in Rock Hill, came to her feet and stood silently as Trump equated refugees from Syria with ISIS terrorists. She was wearing a hijab and a blue T-shirt that said, “Salam, I come in peace.” Several others stood in solidarity.

This passive protest was enough of a provocation that the audience began chanting their leader’s name like a mantra — “Trump! Trump! Trump!” — and a police officer escorted Hamid out. She told CNN that while some Trump followers apologized to her, others pelted her with abuse.

“Get out!” one person shouted.

“You have a bomb?” another cried.

It all brings home something that has become glaringly obvious: While many of us have lamented Trump’s improbable rise to political prominence, the real problem is not him and never was. Rather, the problem is that thing deep down in some of us that responds to him, that small, primeval thing so filled with uncertainty, fear and fury that it will suspend both logic and compassion to worship a man whose very name has become a symbol of all that is hateful and violative of American ideals.

No, Trump is not Hitler. Hitler was a singular figure who committed a singular crime. Nor do I believe Trump will even be president. But his dominance of the Republican field is instructive just the same, offering vivid evidence of the depth of alienation on that side of the political spectrum. The rest of us ignore or underestimate that alienation at our own peril. The threat it poses to our hopes for a just and inclusive America is real and grave and should be treated as such.

To read of how fascism stole over Germany is to repeatedly ask yourself how an enlightened nation could have fallen for such transparent garbage. Well, the answer is unfolding before us in real time and it ought to horrify good people into taking a stand.

One woman already did.

(Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132. Readers may contact him via e-mail at (c) 2016 THE MIAMI HERALD DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC.

Photo: Audience member Robin Roy (C) reacts as U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump greets her at a campaign rally in Lowell, Massachusetts January 4, 2016. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

Citizen Cruz: Trump Hammers Away, Senate Leader Mum

By Doina Chiacu

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump on Sunday hammered away at his closest challenger’s eligibility to be U.S. president, while the party’s Senate leader said the chamber will stay out of the fray involving Ted Cruz’s citizenship.

Under the Constitution, presidents must be “natural born citizens.” Cruz was born in Calgary, Alberta, to an American mother, which he says makes him eligible to run.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told ABC’s “This Week” the Senate would not act to counter Trump’s claim that Cruz’s Canadian birth makes him ineligible to be president. The father of the senator from Texas was born in Cuba.

In 2008, the Senate passed a resolution declaring Senator John McCain, a Republican presidential candidate, a natural born citizen. McCain was born to American parents on a U.S. military base in the Panama Canal Zone.

“I just don’t think the Senate ought to get into the middle of this,” McConnell said. “These guys are all slugging it out in Iowa and New Hampshire. We’ll have a nominee, hopefully, by sometime in the spring.”

The winner will face the Democrats’ nominee in the November general election.

Trump, who leads Republican candidates in national opinion polls, is grappling with the rise of Cruz in Iowa, which holds the first presidential nominating contest next month.

As Cruz took the lead in Iowa before its Feb. 1 caucuses, Trump’s glare followed. The billionaire businessman highlighted the citizenship issue last week, warning that Democrats could challenge Cruz’s eligibility in court.

Cruz has refused to engage with Trump on the issue. On Sunday, he said the law was straightforward.

“As a legal matter, the Constitution and federal law are clear that the child of U.S. citizens born abroad is a natural-born citizen,” he told CNN’s “State of the Union.”

Asked on “Fox News Sunday” whether he really doubted Cruz was a natural born citizen, Trump said, “I don’t know. I really don’t know. It depends.

“Does natural born mean born to the land, meaning born on the land? In that case, he’s not.”

Trump said the term has not been adjudicated, and advised Cruz to seek a judgment.

“He has to solve this problem because the Democrats will sue him if he’s the nominee,” Trump said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Another Republican candidate, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, said on CBS’ “Face the Nation” it was unclear if Cruz qualified as a natural born citizen and that Democrats will likely challenge that.

Cruz said the attacks against him are telling.

“Three weeks ago, almost every Republican candidate was attacking Donald Trump,” Cruz said on CNN. “Today almost every Republican candidate is attacking me. And that kinda suggests something has changed in the race.”

(Additional reporting by Andy Sullivan and Roberta Rampton; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)

File Photo: U.S. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) (R) greets businessman Donald Trump onstage as they address a Tea Party rally against the Iran nuclear deal at the U.S. Capitol in Washington September 9, 2015.  REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst      

Seeking South Carolina Foothold, Bush Wins Another Graham Backer

By Michael C. Bender, Bloomberg News (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Jeb Bush picked up more support for his presidential campaign in South Carolina on Thursday, signing up more than a dozen military veterans in the state and collecting another member of U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham’s national security coalition.

Bush, the former Florida governor and son and brother of former presidents, now claims support from four members of Graham’s national security team, even as U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio describes himself as having the best foreign policy resume in the Republican field. The campaign says it has endorsements from 22 supporters of Graham, who ended his presidential bid last month.

“The South Carolina endorsements are reflective of a campaign that’s worked hard at the grassroots level, and work is starting to pay off,” Sally Bradshaw, a senior Bush adviser, said in an interview.

Bradshaw said Bush has secured endorsements from more supporters of Graham because Bush is addressing their biggest concern: Donald Trump. “They want a serious candidate with strong plans for the future and who voters can trust with the presidency,” Bradshaw said. “Senator Graham certainly fit those criteria, and they’re moving to Governor Bush for those same reasons.”

In a CBS/YouGov pollreleased Dec. 20, Trump and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz were leading the race in South Carolina, which holds the American South’s premier presidential primary and offers momentum to candidates before heading into Nevada’s caucuses on Feb. 23 and the hectic month of March, when more than 30 states and territories hold Republican presidential nominating contests. Bush placed fifth in the poll at 7 percent, within the margin of error with Rubio, who was third with 12 percent.

Bush’s new supporters in South Carolina include retired Gen. Melvin Zais, according to the campaign. The others are retired Brig. Gen. Butch Kirven, retired Maj. Gen. George Goldsmith and retired Col. David Lobb.

Bush’s team also announced backing from former South Carolina Education Superintendent Jim Roy, a retired chief master sergeant of the Army, and 14 other veterans. Support among veterans is crucial in an area with a politically influential military presence, which includes a swath of bases in the central and southern areas of the state.

“Our country is facing serious challenges and we need a serious, qualified leader as our next president,” Roy said in a statement. “Jeb Bush has proven that he has what it takes to be a strong and decisive commander in chief. Our country needs a president who understands, believes in and cares for our military. Jeb Bush will be that president.”

Bush’s performance in South Carolina’s primary on Feb. 20 — and that of his Republican rivals — may depend largely on the New Hampshire contest 11 days earlier. Trump is leading in New Hampshire, but Bush is in a fight for second place there, according to a survey by the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling released Wednesday.

It’s a different story in Iowa, which holds the first nominating contest on Feb. 1. Bush is trailing badly in the state — a CBS/YouGov poll in mid-December showed him with just 2 percent. The former governor returns to the state for a campaign swing next week, and his allied super PAC, Right to Rise USA, has started to run negative ads in the state aimed at Rubio. The super PAC, which already has spent $50 million on TV ads on behalf of Bush, received another $10 million from Hank Greenberg, who built American International Group Inc. into the world’s largest insurer, according the Wall Street Journal. Greenberg, who told Bloomberg Politics in October that he was backing Bush, didn’t return messages seeking comment.

©2016 Bloomberg News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: U.S. Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush speaks at the New Hampshire Forum on Addiction and Heroin Epidemic in Hooksett, New Hampshire, January 5, 2016. REUTERS/Brian Snyder