CHARLESTON, S.C. (CBSNewYork/AP) — President Barack Obama and his record were the target of harsh rhetoric – but multiple candidates also quarreled vehemently with one another – in the Republican presidential debate Thursday night — one of the last high-profile opportunities for White House hopefuls to sway voters before the Feb. 1 Iowa caucus.
The prime-time showdown on Thursday night in South Carolina had just seven candidates on the main stage — front-runner Donald Trump, Texas U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, Florida U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, neurosurgeon Ben Carson, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
As CBS2 Political Reporter Marcia Kramer reported, the debate became a donnybrook – Donny as in Donald Trump, that is.
In past debates, Cruz had often sung Trump’s praises – while Trump fell into squabbles with Bush, Paul and other candidates. But Cruz lately has been accusing Trump of having “New York values” and questioning his foreign policy credentials.
During the debate, Cruz and Trump went head-to-head – when moderators brought up doubts by Trump about whether Cruz is qualified to run.
Cruz was born in Canada, but his mother was a U.S. citizen. Cruz said the understanding in U.S. law is clear that the child of an American citizen born outside the country is a natural-born citizen – noting that 2008 Republican presidential nominee John McCain was himself born in the Panama Canal Zone.
He went on to say some extreme interpreters think a presidential candidate must not only be born on U.S. soil himself or herself, but also have two parents who were born in the U.S. In that case, Cruz said, Trump is also disqualified as his mother was born in Scotland.
PHOTOS: South Carolina GOP Debate
“You’re an American, as is everyone else on this stage,” Cruz said, adding that the debate should focus on who would be best as commander in chief.
Cruz added further that Trump previously said he didn’t think Cruz has a problem.
Cruz said in September, “my friend Donald had had his lawyers look at this from every which way… and there was nothing to this birther issue.”
Cruz protested that he himself does not care about Cruz’s eligibility – saying it was not he, but Harvard University professor Lawrence Tribe – who had claimed Cruz might be ineligible.
But he said the question of whether Cruz is qualified was serious enough that Cruz should think about it.
“The fact is there’s a big overhang. There’s a big question mark on your head. And you can’t do that to the party,” Trump said to Cruz.
Cruz was later asked to elaborate on his remark about New York values – for which progressive Mayor Bill de Blasio had previously been set up as an example. Cruz responded by slamming New York City as a place where conservative values are not seen.
“There are many, many wonderful working men and women in the state of New York, but everyone understands that the values of New York City are socially liberal, are pro-abortion, are pro-gay marriage – they focus on money and the media,” Cruz said.
He went on, “Not a lot of conservatives come out of Manhattan, I’m just saying.”
Trump retorted that New York is “a great place. It’s got great people. It’s got loving people.” He noted how much New York City suffered during the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center were brought down and thousands were killed.
Trump said the smell of death lingered in the air for a long time after the attacks, but, “I saw something that no place on earth could have handled more beautifully than New York.”
“We rebuilt downtown Manhattan, and everybody in the world watched, and everybody in the world loved New York and loved New Yorkers, and I have to tell you – that is a very insulting statement that Ted made,” Trump said.
Rubio and Christie also exchanged snipes, with Rubio accusing Christie of being too liberal to lead the country. He claimed Christie favored gun control and Common Core education, and had backed U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
Christie said he did not support Sotomayor, said Common Core had been eliminated in New Jersey, and noted that he had vetoed several gun control measures including a 50-caliber rifle ban and a reduction in legal clip sizes.
“When you’re a senator, what you get to do is just talk and talk and talk, and you talk so much that no one can keep up with whether what you’re saying is accurate or not,” Christie said. “When you’re governor, you’re held accountable for everything you do.”
Both Bush and Carson took issue with the snipes, saying the focus should be on uniting and defeating the Democrats.
“If we manage to damage ourselves, and we lose an election, and a progressive gets in there and they get two or three Supreme Court picks, the nation is over as we know it,” Carson said.
Before the sniping matches began, the debate focused largely on President Barack Obama’s record and a perception that he had failed in his foreign and economic policy — and Trump
Cruz began by challenging Obama’s claims in his State of the Union Address this past Tuesday night. Obama characterized the present-day American economy as the “strongest, most durable economy in the world,” and said anyone claiming the economy was in decline was “peddling fiction.”
Cruz said Obama was right – but only when it came to certain elites.
“If you’re a Washington lobbyist; if you’re making money in and around Washington, things are great,” Cruz said. “The millionaires and billionaires are doing great under Obama.”
But Cruz claimed working people have been left behind.
Christie later dismissed Obama’s State of the Union Address as “storytime with Barack Obama,” as he and many of other candidates went on the attack against Obama for his foreign policy decisions.
Christie and Cruz said Obama had coddled Iran when U.S. sailors were captured there. Christie also accused of Obama of letting the military diminish to the point where “tin pot dictators like the mullahs in Iran” are able to capture U.S. sailors.
“We are not the world’s policeman, but we need to stand up and be ready,” Christie said.
Bush said President Obama underestimated the dangers that threaten America in his address Tuesday night. He said ISIS is not the “JV team” as he said Obama characterized the terrorist group, and said ISIS actually forms “a caliphate the size of Indiana with 35,000 to 40,000 battle-ready terrorists.”
He said Obama has been “pulling back” while terrorism is on the rise and China threatens the U.S. economy.
“I have no understanding why President Obama thinks everything is doing well,” Bush said.
Rubio also accused Obama of being soft on terrorism and ISIS, and said if he were president, he would go aggressively after ISIS and send any survivor “a one-way ticket to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and we’re going to find out everything they know.” Obama has advocated throughout his presidency for closing Guantanamo.
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton was also the target of repeated jabs – with multiple candidates taking issue with her email server scandal. Christie also took issue with Clinton’s foreign policy – particularly when it came to the Middle East.
“Hillary Clinton cannot be president. It will lead to even greater war in this world,” Christie said.
But Kasich also said if Bernie Sanders – a self-described democratic socialist – is the Democratic nominee for president, “we’re going to win every state.” He said the notion of Sanders as competition is “not even an issue.”
On another subject, Trump was later asked about his contention that Syrian refugees should not be allowed into the country, even if they seem to have legitimate claims that they are in danger.
“It’s not fear of terror, it’s just reality,” Trump said. “You have to look at Indonesia – bombings all over. You look at California; you look frankly at Paris – there’s a restrictive no-gun policy in any city of the world, and you see what happens.”
He said even sympathetic refugees could be “the great Trojan horse – it could be people who are going to give great, great destruction.”
Trump claimed “very few women and children” have been seen among refugees trying to migrate from their home countries, and most of them have seemed to be “strong, powerful men – young.”
“People are looking at that and saying, ‘What’s going on?’” Trump said.
Later, when asked whether he had any doubts about his statement that Muslims should be banned from entering in the U.S., Trump simply said “no.”
“We have to stop with political correctness. We have to get down to creating a country that’s not going to have the kind of problems that we’ve had with people flying planes into the World Trade Centers, with the shootings in California, with all the problems all over the world — I just left Indonesia – bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb,” Trump said. “We have to find out what’s going on. I said temporarily, I didn’t say permanently.”
Trump even said he had Muslim friends who agreed with him.
In a rebuttal, Kasich said he also believed in pausing the entry of Syrian refugees, but he said a coalition of allies – including some Muslim countries – is necessary to maintain security around the world.
“If we try to call everybody the same thing, we can’t do it,” he said.
Christie also said Syrian refugees should not be brought in, claiming that FBI Director James Comey said it was impossible to vet them. But he also took issue with Trump’s policy suggestion.
“You can’t just ban all Muslims. You have to ban radical Islamic jihadists,” Christie said, adding that maintaining intelligence is the only way to determine who such people are – and claiming Obama has not done so.
The candidates were also asked about the issue of gun rights. Moderators noted that last year in Charleston — where the debate was being held — Dylann Roof, 21, shot and killed nine people at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church — saying that he targeted them because they were black.
Bush said the issue in that case was not that more restrictions are needed on guns, but that the FBI made a mistake and the law already requires a background check as it is.
Trump added, “I am a Second Amendment person,” and claimed that if the victims in the Paris and San Bernardino massacres had been armed, the severe death tolls would never have been seen.
The real issue was with the country’s failure to deal with mental health, Trump said.
“We have a huge mental health problem in this country,” he said.
Christie also took issue with President Obama for his recent defended his executive actions to tighten criminal background checks. Christie called Obama a “petulant child.”
“Mr. President, we’re not against you, we’re against your policies,” Christie said, adding, “We are going to kick your rear end out of the White House.”
The candidates also discussed tax plans and calls for simplification of the tax code.
Kentucky U.S. Sen. Rand Paul and former technology executive Carly Fiorina did not appear on the primetime debate based on criteria established by the network relying on recent polls.
Fiorina participated, along with former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Pennsylvania U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum in an earlier “undercard” debate. Paul declined to participate.
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