Ending months of civility, Republican presidential candidates Donald Trump and Ted Cruz clashed in fiery disagreement Thursday night over polls, values and even the Texas senator’s eligibility to serve as commander in chief. The billionaire businessman declared that the eligibility issue could put the GOP at risk of a disastrous loss to Democrats.
“There is a big question mark on your head,” Trump told Cruz, who was born in Canada to an American mother. “You can’t do that to the party.”
It was one of many heated exchanges between a pair of candidates seeking to tap into support from voters who are angry and frustrated with Republican Party leaders as well as Democrats.
Cruz renewed his criticism of “New York values,” a coded questioning of Trump’s conservatism that elicited an unexpectedly emotional response from the real estate mogul 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.”
The exchanges signaled an end to months of relative friendliness between Trump and Cruz. While Trump has led the GOP race for months, the Texas senator is on the rise in Iowa, where the Feb. 1 caucuses kick off voting in less than three weeks.
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 Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
Rubio likened Christie’s policies to President Barack 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 such as himself are “held accountable for everything you do.”
Still, Trump and Cruz dominated much of the prime-time debate, the first of the new year.
Cruz accused Trump of raising questions about his citizenship simply as a response to his stronger standing in the polls that Trump still frequently touts in campaign events. The senator was also on the defensive about his failed disclosure on federal election forms of some $1 million in loans from Wall Street banks during his 2012 Senate campaign, saying it was little more than a “paperwork error.”
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.
‘I’m very angry’
Trump said he wasn’t offended by Haley’s speech and argued that 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.”
Trump also stuck with his controversial call for temporarily banning Muslims from the United States because of fear of terrorism emanating from abroad. He said he had no regrets about the proposal and noted his poll numbers rose after he announced the plan.
He is dismissing concern about the “political correctness” he says led to “flying planes into the World Trade Center” in Manhattan in 2001.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush urged Trump to reconsider, asking: “All Muslims? Seriously?”
Bush said the call for a ban sends a signal to the Arab world that the United States isn’t serious about leading a global coalition to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
“There is a better way,” Bush said. “We have to lead. You cannot make these rash statements.”
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 the same policies. Bush suggested the country was less safe under Obama and declared that 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.
Christie said that if Hillary Clinton is president “it will lead to greater war in this world.” Christie made the comment when asked how important it was to remove Syrian President Bashar Assad from power.
Christie says that President Barack Obama has done “worse than nothing” about Assad, and that former Secretary of State Clinton will be worse.
Bush said the U.S. must rebuild its military so Russia and other countries will take the U.S. seriously. He lamented cuts to the Navy and other parts of the military and remarked that U.S. military planes are older than the pilots.
He said the U.S. should re-impose sanctions on Iran. He says Iran has already violated its obligations following the recent nuclear deal by testing missiles. The U.S. must “get back in the game” to restore order and security for itself, Bush declared.
Bush also called for moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Israel considers Jerusalem to be its capital but that designation isn’t internationally recognized because the Palestinians also claim the city for their future capital. The U.S. and almost every other country have their embassies in Tel Aviv.
On another topic, Cruz said he doesn’t want any of his rivals to one-up him on support for the Second Amendment — and he also made sure to turn a question on gun regulations toward Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton.
Said Cruz: “Everyone is going to say they support the Second Amendment. Unless you are clinically insane, that’s what you say in a primary.”
Cruz touted his record as solicitor general in Texas and in the Senate, saying it sets him apart from his rivals. And he says that matters given that the next president could appoint several justices to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Cruz noted that Clinton has said she agrees with the dissenters to the high court ruling that the Second Amendment includes the individual right to bear arms, a ruling that overtuned local and state bans on certain firearms.