NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. – The Republican presidential debate on Thursday featured the fewest candidates to date — but the most rollicking action yet. With just over two weeks until the voters begin making their choices in the leadoff Iowa caucuses, here are a few key takeaways from the night.
THE TRUMP-CRUZ DYNAMIC
Ted Cruz and Donald Trump - the two candidates atop the preference polls in first-to-vote Iowa - repeatedly went toe to toe, starting with Trump's questioning of whether Cruz, born in Canada to a U.S. citizen, is eligible to serve as president.
Asked about the issue by a debate moderator, Cruz reminded the audience that Trump had once said Cruz's citizenship was a non-issue. And the Texas senator was ready with a zinger, too: "Since September, the Constitution hasn't changed. But the poll numbers have."
The businessman fired back that Cruz misrepresented the level of Trump's support, but didn't dispute that he's brought up the issue because Cruz "is doing a little better. It's true."
The two tangled again over Cruz's recent comments about Trump's "New York values." Said Cruz, "Everyone understands that the values in New York City are socially liberal ... focused around money and the media." And in a nod to Trump's home in midtown Manhattan, Cruz said: "I can frame it another way: Not a lot of conservatives come out of Manhattan. I'm just saying."
And just as Cruz was ready to talk about his citizenship, Trump was ready to defend New York. The billionaire real-estate mogul said he found that kind of talk "insulting" and talked about how New Yorkers had come together after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. "Everybody in the world watched, and everyone in the world loved New York and loved New Yorkers. ... That was a very insulting statement that Ted made."
BUSH STANDS ALONE
Pressed on whether he regretted his call to bar Muslims from entering the U.S., Trump had a one-word answer: "No." And when asked whether they supported Trump's proposal, the candidates sharing the stage with him demurred, talking instead about immigration and security problems
All exept Jeb Bush.
The former Florida governor has made taking on Trump the cornerstone of his struggling campaign, and he slammed the proposal as one that would make it impossible for the U.S. to build the necessary bridges with Arab nations to defeat the Islamic State.
"All Muslims? Seriously? What kind of signal does that send to the rest of the world?" Bush said. "What we need to do is destroy ISIS. The other Arab countries have a role to play in this. Sending that signal makes it impossible for us to be serious about taking out ISIS and restoring democracy in Syria."
Reminded that he once called Trump and his proposal unhinged, Bush replied, "Yeah, they are unhinged."
ESTABLISHMENT LANE FENDER-BENDERS
The candidates seeking the support of more traditional Republican Party voters were eager to mix it up with each other. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio refused to condemn an ad from a super PAC supporting him that portrays New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie as similar to President Barack Obama. Rubio said Christie "endorsed many of the ideas" that the president supports.
Christie strongly disagreed — then he resuscitated a line that Rubio himself used in a past debate. Rubio had said it seemed as if a strategist had persuaded Bush, not a natural fighter, to harshly attack his fellow Floridian.
"Well, it appears that the same someone has been whispering in old Marco's ear, too," Christie said.
Christie also said that while two years ago Rubio called him a "conservative reformer," he is now misrepresenting his record. "When you're a senator what you get to do is talk and talk and talk and no one can keep up to see if what you're saying is accurate or not," Christie said.
SPEAKING OF CLINTON
The former secretary of state was mentioned often by all the candidates, and the attacks were often in the form of one-liners. "She's under investigation with the FBI right now," Bush said, adding that the country should avoid a situation with a president who "might be going back and forth between the White House and the courthouse."
Rubio was much more serious when he said Clinton is "disqualified from being president of the United States" because she "mishandled" intelligence, a reference to her use of a personal email account and server rather than a government account while at the State Department. He also accused her of telling "lies" to the families of victims in the attack on the U.S. outpost in Benghazi.
Separately, Christie warned, "If you're worried about world being on fire, you cannot give Hillary Clinton a third term of Barack Obama's leadership."
SOUTH CAROLINA AND GUN VIOLENCE
The debate took place less than 10 miles from the African-American church where a 21-year-old white man shot and killed nine people attending a prayer service last year. At the moderators' prompting, the candidates spent a collective 10 minutes on gun restrictions and gun violence — with all forcefully reiterating their support of the Second Amendment.
Rubio turned the discussion to Obama, who he said wants to "take people's guns away." After disparaging Obama's recent action to make it harder to buy weapons at gun shows, Rubio said neither criminals nor terrorists buy guns in that sort of venue.
"His immediate answer," Rubio said of Obama's response to everything from mass shootings to terrorist attacks, "is gun control."
When the three Democratic presidential contenders meet Sunday night in Charleston for their next debate, they'll surely have a different take.
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