The sixth Republican prime-time debate, at the North Charleston Coliseum in the important primary state of South Carolina, took place at a tense time for the Republican field, with the clock ticking toward the Feb. 1 Iowa caucuses, the first contest in choosing the party's nominee for the Nov. 8 general election.
Tighter eligibility rules for Thursday's main debate, hosted by the Fox Business Network, resulted in a smaller cast of candidates, the top seven candidates ranked by Republican voters: New York real estate businessman Donald Trump, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Ohio Gov. John Kasich. Republicans have one more debate scheduled before voting begins in Iowa, a Jan. 28 event in Des Moines.
Nearly every candidate had a bone to pick with one or more of the others this week. Beyond the Trump-Cruz theatrics — Trump and Cruz are locked in battle for first place in Iowa — Bush has blasted Trump and Rubio, Rubio has slammed Bush as well as Cruz and Christie, and Christie has attacked almost everyone else.
On Thursday night, Trump and Cruz clashed over the Texas senator's eligibility to serve as commander in chief and the businessman's “New York values,” ending months of civility between fiery contenders seeking to tap into voter anger and frustration.
Two hours of prime-time argument presented voters with a sharp contrast to the optimistic vision of America that President Barack Obama painted in his State of the Union address earlier this week.
The candidates warned of dire risks to national security and challenged claims of recent economic gains for the middle class.
Heated exchanges between Trump and Cruz dominated much of the contest, with the real estate mogul saying the senator has a “big question mark” hanging over his candidacy, given his birth in Canada to an American mother.
“You can't do that to the party,” Trump declared.
Cruz suggested Trump was turning on him only because he's challenging Trump's lead, particularly in Iowa. The senator was on the defensive about his failure to disclose on federal election forms some $1 million in loans from Wall Street banks during his 2012 Senate campaign, saying it was little more than a “paperwork error.”
Cruz renewed his criticism of Trump's “New York values,” a coded questioning of his rival's conservatism. But the biting barb appeared to backfire, eliciting an unexpectedly emotional response from Trump about his hometown's response to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
“No place on earth could have handled that more beautifully, more humanely than New York,” Trump said. “That was a very insulting statement that Ted made.”
At times the contest between some of the more mainstream candidates seeking to emerge as an alternative to Trump and Cruz was just as fiery, particularly between Rubio and Christie.
Rubio likened Christie's policies to Obama's, particularly on guns, Planned Parenthood and education reform — an attack Christie declared false. Seeking to undermine Rubio's qualifications for president, Christie suggested that senators “talk and talk and talk” while governors like him are “held accountable for everything you do.”
Rubio entered the debate as the top target for most of the other establishment-minded candidates. He largely escaped the criticism of his Senate voting record and immigration policies that have dogged him on the campaign trail and in television advertisements blanketing airwaves in early voting states — until near the end, when Cruz confronted him on immigration. Rubio fired back by accusing Cruz of switching positions on issues, preferring for the most part to stick to his trademark rapid-fire, policy-focused answers.
Rubio and Christie are hoping to break out of the establishment pack, particularly in the New Hampshire primary, which take place the week after Iowa caucuses.
Thursday night's debate came at the end of a week that has highlighted anew the deep rifts in the Republican Party. South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, a rising GOP star, was widely praised by many party leaders for including a veiled criticism of Trump's angry rhetoric during her response to Obama's State of the Union address — only to be chastised by conservative commentators and others for the exact same comment.
Trump said he wasn't offended by Haley's speech and argued his anger is justified. “I'm very angry because our country is being run horribly,” he said. “And I will gladly accept the mantle of anger.”
He stuck with his controversial call for temporarily barring Muslims from entering the United States because of fear of terrorism. He said he had no regrets about the proposal and noted his poll numbers rose after he announced the plan.
Bush, who has emerged as a frequent critic of Trump, urged the front-runner to reconsider the policy. “What kind of signal does that send to the rest of the world?” said Bush, who has struggled to gain momentum in the race and often appeared overshadowed Thursday night.
Kasich also broke with Trump on the Muslim ban but, like the entire GOP field, called for at least a temporary halt to the Obama administration's plan to allow thousands of Syrian refugees into the country. “I've been for pausing the Syrian refugees,” Kasich said. “But we don't want to put everybody in the same category.”
On the economy and national security, the candidates offered a sharp contrast to the optimistic portrait of the nation Obama outlined in his State of the Union address and warned that sticking with Democrats in the November election could have dire consequences.
“On Tuesday night, I watched story time with Barack Obama, and it sounds like everything in the world was going amazing,” Christie said.
Cruz accused Obama of painting a rosy picture of the country's economic situation while working Americans are being “left behind” and said Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton would continue Obama's policies. Bush suggested the country was less safe under Obama and declared Clinton would be a “national security disaster.”
Rubio went even further, saying Clinton was “disqualified for being commander in chief,” accusing her of mishandling classified information and lying to the families of Americans killed in the 2012 attacks in Benghazi, Libya.
In an earlier debate of low-polling candidates, Republicans Carly Fiorina, Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum largely focused their criticism on Democrats rather than one another.
They were all in agreement that Obama’s strategy toward Iran, the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant and his executive actions last week to strengthen gun control were flawed and should be changed.
Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard CEO who was demoted from the main stage because of faltering poll numbers, said she is “honored” to be onstage with Huckabee and Santorum, “two former Iowa caucus winners.” The clear implication: Neither man's presidential ambitions have survived the nomination process, leaving them in the lower tier of candidates this year.
Then she took a shot at the only other woman in the race, Clinton, a former secretary of state and the wife of former President Bill Clinton. Fiorina sniped, “Unlike another woman in this race, I actually love spending time with my husband.”
Sen. Paul Rand of Kentucky opted out of the undercard debate and said instead he would host a town hall session on Twitter during the main debate.