Seven Republican presidential hopefuls battled here Thursday night in the second-to-last debate before the Iowa caucuses.
The debate, hosted by Fox Business News, came as the polling narrative solidifies 18 days before Iowans cast the first votes of 2016. And that narrative is: Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are neck-and-neck in the Hawkeye State and the rest of the map for now belongs to Trump.
The top candidates, when left to their own devices, focused their ire on President Barack Obama and Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton, only turning on each other when prompted by moderators. But when they did, it was spirited and prolonged.
The most extended fracas came in the first half hour, between Trump and Cruz on the issue of whether Cruz is eligible to be president because he was born in Canada to an American mother. Trump has raised the question of late, just as the Texas U.S. senator has begun to gain support in Iowa.
“Back in September, my friend Donald said he had his lawyers look at this and there was nothing to this birther issue,” Cruz said. “Now, 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.”
Trump said he doesn’t really care.
“I think I’m going to win fair and square,” he said. “I don’t have to win this way. Lawyers said there’s a serious question. We’re running, we’re running, we win. (What if) I choose him as my vice presidential candidate? Democrats sue, we can’t take him along for the ride. I don’t like that.”
Moments later, it was Florida U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie sparring when Rubio was asked whether he should apologize for attacking Christie earlier in the campaign.
“I like Chris Christie, but we cannot afford to have a president of the United States who supports Common Core, a president who supports gun control. Chris Christie wrote a check for Planned Parenthood,” Rubio said. “If we don’t get this election right, there may be no turning back for America.”
Christie said he never financially supported Planned Parenthood, has vetoed gun-control legislation, and that Common Core is gone from the Garden State.
“This is the difference between being a governor and a senator,” he said. “As a senator, you just talk and talk and no one can keep up with what you’re saying. As governor, you’re accountable for everything you do.
“I like Marco, too. Two years ago he called me a conservative reformer New Jersey needed. Now he’s changed his tune.”
In a unique moment of the campaign, Trump showed during the debate that he can avoid a scorched-earth response to critics.
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley on Tuesday told Republicans they should resist the temptation to “follow the siren call of the angriest voices” and later said Trump was a target. Instead of railing against Haley as he has others who’ve crossed him, Trump on Thursday night said the two are friends and that Haley — who was in the audience on Thursday — was right.
“I’m very angry,” he said. “Because our country is being run horribly.”
For much of the debate, the candidates kept their attacks focused on Obama and Clinton.
“The first impulse of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton is to take rights way from law-abiding citizens,” former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said when asked whether expanded background checks would have prevented Dylan Roof from buying a gun. Roof is the white South Carolina man charged with killing nine black parishioners at Charleston’s Emanuel AME Baptist Church, nine miles away from the stage where the candidates debated.
“The FBI made a mistake,” Bush said. “The law itself required a background check. They didn’t fulfill their part of the bargain. We don’t need to add new rules. We need to make sure the FBI does it’s job.”
On the same issue, Christie went further: “This guy is a petulant child.”
“We’re going to kick your rear-end out of the White House this fall,” Christie said, directing it at the president.
On foreign policy, Rubio said the president has a skewed view of America’s place in the world.
“On the issue of Barack Obama,” Rubio said, “he does not believe America is s a great global power. He believes America is an arrogant global power that needs to be cut down to size.”
Ohio Gov. John Kasich and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson had little opportunity to make an impact on the conversation. Kasich’s top moment came early in the debate when he touted his own credentials as a job creator and budget shepherd both in Washington and in Ohio. Carson twice was asked about the use of military force and twice said if America goes to war we must give the military what it needs.
“The fact of the matter is if we give them a mission and we don’t tie their hands behind their back, they can accomplish it,” he said.
Earlier in the night, in the undercard debate, former CEO Carly Fiorina, former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee also took turns bashing Obama and Clinton over foreign policy, the economy and gun control.
On gun control, the most biting comment came from Fiorina, who said Obama admitted that the government wasn’t doing a good enough job on background checks for gun purchases.
“It might have helped prevent a tragedy here in South Carolina with Dylan Roof, who clearly shouldn’t have been sold a gun,” she said.
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Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com