Less than three weeks before voters cast the presidential election’s first ballots in the Iowa caucus, Republican candidates took aim at each other during a debate that could start winnowing the large field.
Seven Republicans qualified for the main debate stage, the fewest in the first six debates. That gave candidates more time to speak —and they used it.
New York billionaire Donald Trump, the Republican front-runner nationally and in South Carolina, and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who has become Trump’s main rival, were the main targets.
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Cruz said Trump recently brought up citizenship questions over the Texan’s birth in Canada to a U.S. mother because the senator has become his main rival. “Since September, the Constitution has not changed, but the poll numbers have,” Cruz said.
Trump said prominent lawyers, not him, have raised questions about Cruz’s eligibility to be president and warned Democrats will file a suit if the senator wins the GOP nomination. “You have a big lawsuit over your head; why are you running?” Trump asked.
Then Trump admitted he brought up the citizenship issue because Cruz was going up in the polls.
Cruz offered to make Trump his vice presidential pick. “And if you’re right, you could get the top job at the end of the day.”
Trump was asked how he would unite the Republican Party after S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley criticized him in her response to Democratic President Barack Obama’s State of the Union this week. Haley cautioned voters to avoid “the siren call of the angriest voices.”
Trump said the incompetency of the Obama administration has united many Americans in anger. “I will gladly accept the mantle of anger,” he said. “I was not offended. I said, ‘Huh, she’s right.’”
Several other candidates tried to focus the debate back on fighting the Democrats. “We have to stop tearing ourselves apart,” retired Maryland neurosurgeon Ben Carson said, adding the selection of up to four Supreme Court justices was at stake with the election of the next president.
Near the city where an avowed white supremacist is accused of killing nine African-American parishioners, the Republican candidates did not back down in their support for gun rights.
Trump and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush agreed more money for mental-health care is needed to address gun violence. “It’s not the gun that pulls the trigger, it’s the people who pull the trigger,” Trump said.
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida said criminals and terrorists don’t buy guns at stores and shows. They steal them and Americans need protection, he said. “The Second Amendment is not an option. It’s a right,” Rubio said.
Asked if he would back off his call for a temporary ban on Muslims coming into the country, Trump said one word — “No.”
“We have to stop with the political correctness,” he said. “We have to find out what’s going on.”
But Bush said Trump’s proposal makes beating ISIS and bringing democracy to Syria impossible by alienating Muslim allies. “You cannot make rash statements (and expect) the rest of the world to respond, ‘It’s just politics,’” Bush said. “We send a signal of weakness, not strength.”
Voters will get three more chances to see the candidates grapple in debates, including one in Greenville before the S.C. Republican presidential primary on Feb. 20. The Palmetto State holds the third GOP primary after Iowa and New Hampshire.