[crscore]Ted Cruz[/crscore] and Donald Trump, competing for the conservative mantle, duked it out over the constitutional requirements to be commander in chief.
Chris Christie and [crscore]Marco Rubio[/crscore], fighting for the establishment mantle, battled over whether Christie has a conservative record as governor.
And everyone else at Thursday evening’s Republican presidential debate in Charleston — Jeb Bush, Ben Carson and John Kasich — tried to get a word in edgewise.
The debate marked the first time Cruz and Trump, who have had a friendly relationship during the campaign until now, aggressively sparred with each other on stage.
The duo — polling near each other in Iowa — debated whether the Texas senator is eligible to be president even though he was born in Canada. (His mother was an American citizen.)
“I recognize that Donald is dismayed that his poll numbers are falling in Iowa,” Cruz said. “But the facts and law here are really quite clear. Under longstanding U.S. law, the child of a U.S citizen born abroad is a natural born citizen.”
Trump, the New York businessman, responded: “As you know, Ted, in the last three polls, I’m beating you. So you shouldn’t misrepresent how well you’re doing with the polls. In fact, I was all for you because you started doing that. That is misrepresentation.”
Asked why he decided to attack Cruz over this issue now, after previously saying he believed Cruz is eligible to serve, Trump said of his rival: “He never had a chance. Now he is doing better.”
Offering a back-handed compliment, Trump said of Cruz: “He’s got probably a 4 or 5 percent chance.”
Trump tried to act concerned for Cruz, telling him: “You have a big lawsuit over your head while you’re running and if you become the nominee, who the hell knows if you can even serve in office? So you should go out and get a declaratory judgment.”
An annoyed Cruz quipped at one point: “Listen, I spent my entire life defending the Constitution before the U.S Supreme Court and I’ll tell you I’m not going to be taking legal advice from Donald Trump.”
Rubio, a Florida senator, jumped in and won laughs and cheers by saying: “I hate to interrupt this episode of CourtTV.”
Asked by a moderator about his recent criticism of Christie, Rubio lashed out: “Unfortunately, Gov. Christie has endorsed many of the ideas that Barack Obama supports — whether it is Common Core or gun control or the appointment of Sonia Sotomayor or the donation he made to Planned Parenthood. Our next president, Republican nominee can not be someone who supports those positions.”
Christie, the New Jersey governor, shot back by using a defense Rubio was utilized when attacked by Bush.
“I stood on stage,” Christie said, “and watched Marco rather indignantly look at Gov. Bush and say someone told you that because we’re running for the same office that criticizing me will get you to that office. It appears the same someone has been whispering in old Marco’s ear too.”
Defending himself, Christie claimed he never supported Sotomayor or wrote a check to Planned Parenthood. He listed a number of pro-gun rights things he did as governor and said Common Core had been “eliminated” in New Jersey.
Later in the debate, Cruz and Rubio also went at it over immigration.
“The Rubio-Schumer amnesty bill, it expanded Barack Obama’s power to let in Syrian refugees, enabled the president to certify them en masse without mandating meaningful background checks,” Cruz said. “I think that’s a mistake.”
Rubio accused Cruz of being a flip-flopper.
“You used to say you supported doubling the number of green cards, now you say you’re against it,” Rubio said. “You used to support a 500 percent increase in the number of guest workers, now against it. You used to support legalizing people here illegally. Now against it. You used to say you were in favor of birthrights citizenship, now you are against it.”
Cruz replied that “at least half of the things Marco said are flat-out false.”
“Absolutely false,” he said. “Start with immigration. Let’s start with immigration and have a little clarity. Marco stood with Chuck Schumer and Barack Obama on amnesty. I stood with Jeff Sessions and Steve King.”
Carson, the former neurosurgeon who has never been in office before, argued that his rivals should focus less on tearing each other down.
“In the 2012 election…Republicans tore themselves apart,” he said. “You know, we have to stop this because if we manage to damage ourselves, and we lose the next election, and a progressive gets in there and they get two or three Supreme Court picks, this nation is over as we know it. We have to look at the big picture here.”
More than once during the debate — broadcast on the Fox Business Network — Cruz expressed his displeasure with the questions.
When moderator Maria Bartiromo asked him about the recent news story on how he failed to disclose loans from Goldman Sachs and Citibank when he ran for the Senate in 2012, Cruz shot back: “Well, Maria, thank you for passing on that hit piece on the front page of the New York Times.”
“Yes, I made a paperwork error disclosing it on one piece of paper instead of the other,” Cruz said, “but if that is the best hit the New York Times has got, they better go back to the well.”
When the other moderator, Neil Cavuto, asked him about Trump’s comments about his eligibility to be president, Cruz sarcastically quipped: “Well, Neil, I’m glad we’re focusing on the important topics of the evening.”
At another point, Cruz was asked to explain what he meant when he recently said Trump embodies “New York values.”
“I guess I can frame it another way,” Cruz replied. “Not a lot of conservatives come out of Manhattan. I’m just saying.”
Trump replied that “some conservatives actually do come out of Manhattan. including William F. Buckley and others.”
Trump then went on to call Cruz’s comment “insulting,” discussing the city’s response to the 9-11 attacks. “New York is a great place, it’s got great people, it’s got loving people, wonderful 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.”
And there was plenty of Hillary Clinton talk from all the candidates.
“You can not give Hillary Clinton a third term of Barack Obama’s leadership,” said Christie. “I will not do that if I’m the nominee. She won’t get within 10 miles of the White House.”
“She would be a national security mess,” Bush, the former governor of Florida, said. “And that is wrong. You know what? Here’s the problem. If she gets elected — she’s under investigation with the FBI right now — if she gets elected, her first 100 days, instead of setting an agenda, she might be going back and forth between the White House an courthouse. We need to stop that.”
“She wouldn’t just be a disaster,” Rubio said. “Hillary Clinton is disqualified from being commander in chief of the United States. Someone, someone, who can not handle intelligence information appropriately, can not be commander-in-chief and someone who lies to the families of those four victims in Benghazi can never be president of the United States.”
Asked if former President Bill Clinton’s “past indiscretions” is a legitimate topic in this election, Carson said: “There is no question that we should be able to look at any past president, whether they’re married to somebody who is running for president or not, in terms of their past behavior and what it means.”
With self-described Democratic socialist Bernie Sanders surging in the Democratic primary, Kasich, the governor of Ohio, said Republicans would run the table if Sanders beats Clinton for the nomination.
“We’re going to win every state if Bernie Sanders is the nominee,” he said. “That is not even an issue…I know Bernie and I can promise you he will not be president of the United States.”
The debate took place at the North Charleston Coliseum and Performing Arts Center in North Charleston, South Carolina.
Earlier in the night, three Republicans who didn’t qualify for the primetime showdown — Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee, and Carly Fiorina — debated each other. [crscore]Rand Paul[/crscore] was invited to the earlier debate but opted to boycott it because he argued he deserved to be on the main stage.