There was a new urgency as Republican presidential hopefuls took the stage Thursday evening, with simmering feuds spilling out in the open less than three weeks until the Iowa caucuses.
The onetime detente between Donald Trump and Ted Cruz was gone, with the real estate billionaire early on having to defend his doubts as to whether the Canadian-born Texas senator was even eligible for the White House.
“I’m not bringing a suit, I promise, but the Democrats are going to bring a lawsuit. You have to have certainty, you can’t have a question. I can agree with you or not, but you can’t have a question over your head,” Trump said, defending the line of attack he’s brought up on the trail, questioning whether Cruz meets the constitutional definition of a “natural-born citizen.”
But Cruz came prepared with fiery responses, saying the only reason Trump was raising the issue now is because his support in Iowa and elsewhere is slipping.
“Back in September, my friend Donald said he had his lawyers look at this from every which way, and there was no issue there, there was nothing to this ‘birther’ issue,” Cruz said to applause, while Trump’s arguments were met with loud boos.
“Since September, the constitution hasn’t changed, but the poll numbers have. And I recognize that Donald is dismayed that his poll numbers are falling in Iowa,” Cruz continued. “I’ve spent my entire life defending the constitution before the U.S. Supreme Court, and I tell you, I’m not going to be taking legal advice from Donald Trump.”
The two clashed again later, with Cruz doubling down on his criticisms of Trump’s “New York values.” But while Cruz may have won the first showdown, its was Trump who got the momentum out of this face-off.
“There are many many wonderful working men and women in the state of New York. But everyone understands that the values in New York City are socially liberally, pro-abortion, pro-gay marriage, focused around money and the media,” Cruz said.
But Trump responded, to applause, that those same “New York values” are what shone on September 11th.
“New York is a great place, it’s got great people, loving people. When the World Trade Center came down, I saw something that no place on earth could have handled more beautifully, more humanely than New York,” Trump said. “And everybody in the world watched and everybody in the world loved New York and loved New Yorkers. I have to tell you, that was a very insulting statement that Ted made.”
Cruz also clashed later in the debate with Marco Rubio after the Florida senator unleashed an arsenal of research against the Texas senator on immigration while defending his own work on the bipartisan Senate bill.
“Ted Cruz, you used to say you supported doubling the number of green cards. Now you say that you are against it. You used to support a 500 percent increase in the number of guest workers. You used to support legalizing people that were here illegally. Now you say you are against it. You used to say you were in favor of birth right citizenship, now you say that you are against it,” Rubio argued.
“You don’t get to say we need to secure the borders and at the same time try to get Barack Obama more authority to allow Middle Eastern refugees coming in When the head of the FBI tells us they cannot vet them to determine if they are ISIS terrorists,” Cruz shot back.
Both Rubio and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie — battling especially for support in the critical New Hampshire primary — also laid bare attacks that they’ve been making against each other on the campaign trail and on the airwaves.
“Unfortunately, Gov. Christie has endorsed many of the ideas that Barack Obama supports,” Rubio said, arguing he supported Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s nomination and wrote a check to Planned Parenthood — something the New Jersey governor denied.
Throughout the debate, all the Republicans had common enemies — President Obama and Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.
When asked the first question of the night about jobs and the economy, Cruz instead pivoted and criticized the president for not mentioning the 10 U.S. soldiers who were in Iranian custody; they have since been released but were videoed apologizing for entering Iranian waters.
“And I give you my word if I am elected president, no service man or service woman will be forced to be on their knees and any nation that captures our fighting men and women will feel the full force and fury of United States of America,” Cruz said.
“If you’re worried about the world being on fire, how we’re going to use our military, you cannot give Hillary Clinton a third term of Barack Obama’s leadership,” Christie said, slamming President Obama’s State of the Union address Tuesday night as “story time.”
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush pivoted to Clinton, saying she would be a “national security mess” if elected.
“Here’s the problem, if she gets elected, she’s under investigation with the FBI right now,” Bush said. “If she gets elected, her first 100 days, instead of setting an agenda, she might be going back and forth between the White House and courthouse. We need to stop that.”