Republican front-runners Donald Trump and Ted Cruz faced sharp attacks from their Republican rivals in Tuesday night’s fifth Republican debate, with lower-polling rivals charging that they were not ready to lead the country in an age of terrorism and turmoil in the Middle East.
The debate focused largely on the threat posed by the Islamic State, and terrorists who carried out attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California. Lower-polling candidates like Sen. Rand Paul (Kentucky), New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, and former Florida governor Jeb Bush used the moment to attack Trump and Cruz, and to turn their fierce anti-establishment message against them. How could these candidates govern, they said, if they don’t understand how Washington and the world really work?
“Leadership is not about attacking people, and disparaging people. Leadership is about creating a serious strategy, to deal with the threat of our time,” Bush said to Trump.
Trump, as he had many times before, responded with a reference to Bush’s eroding poll numbers. “Let’s see: I’m at 42, and you’re at three, so I’m doing better,” Trump said.
Cruz’s main battle was with Sen. Marco Rubio (Florida), another Cuban American serving his first term in the Senate. Rubio, who seems to be running behind Cruz, accused the Texas senator of being weak on terrorism, by opposing military spending bills and a measure to increase surveillance. On the question of immigration, Rubio also accused Cruz of agreeing with . . . Rubio, by supporting offering legal status to illegal immigrants who are in the country now. “Ted, you support legalizing people who are in this country illegally,”
Cruz scoffed, saying that he had opposed that very thing. He said that comparing him to Rubio was “like suggesting the fireman and the arsonist have the same record, because they were both at the scene of the fire.”
At times, the front-runners seemed to hurt themselves. Trump, asked about America’s nuclear “triad” – the three main delivery methods for nuclear weapons – gave an answer that seemed to indicate little familiarity with the topic. “The power, and the devastation, is very important to me,” Trump said. Cruz, for his part, had an odd talking standoff with CNN moderators Wolf Blitzer and Hugh Hewitt, in which Cruz refused repeated requests to stop talking. Some in the crowd actually booed.
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Earlier Trump stood by his call to kill the family members of Islamic terrorists, saying the kind of toughness necessary in this fight.
“That will make people think. Because they do not care very much about their lives, but they do care, believe it or not, about their family’s lives,” Trump said, in the midst of a debate dominated by fears about terrorism and security in America.
That brought a rebuke from Bush, who was more aggressive in this debate than he had been in the past.
“The idea that that is a solution to this is just crazy,” Bush said. “It makes no sense to suggest this.”
Trump, as usual, turned a policy argument into a personal one. “He’s a very nice person. But we need tough people,” Trump said.
Bush interrupted. Trump interrupted him.
“Am I talking, or are you talking?
“I’m talking right now,” Bush said. “Little of your own medicine there.” Later, he continued the attack against Trump: “You’re not going to be able to insult your way to the presidency. . . . Leadership is not about attacking people and disparaging people. Leadership is about creating a serious strategy, to deal with the threat of our time.”
Trump also repeated a call to “close” parts of the Internet, apparently in parts of the Middle East, to keep the Islamic State from using the Internet as a recruiting tool. “I don’t want them using our Internet to take our young, impressionable youth,” Trump said.
Later, Trump was also rebuked by Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.), the lowest-polling candidate on the stage. He said that Trump’s ideas for killing family members and shutting down parts of the Internet “It would defy every norm that is America,” Paul said. “Whoever you are, that you’re going to support Donald Trump, think, do you believe in the Constitution? Are you going to change the Constitution?”
Trump responded: “So, they can kill us, but we can’t kill them?”
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The main debate – like the “undercard” debate before it – was a powerful signal that, in the wake of attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California, the GOP race has been dominated by concerns about national security.
The gloom in the debate was thorough, and dark. At one point, Trump – the Republican front-runner – looked back at America’s last 12 years of military interventions overseas, and declared them worthless.
“We’ve spent 4 trillion dollars trying to topple various people,” Trump said, talking about interventions that began with a fellow Republican’s invasion of Iraq in 2003. “We have done a tremendous disservice to humanity. The people that have been killed. The people that have been wiped away. And for what? It’s not like we had a victory.
“That is exactly what President Obama has said. I’m amazed to hear that from a Republican presidential candidate,” former tech executive Carly Fiorina said.
Trump replied with more gloom. “What do we have now? We have nothing.”
In their opening statements, both Bush and Cruz promised to keep Americans “safe,” suggesting that physical, personal security now overshadowed the other issues in the race. Cruz began his opening statement by saying “America is at war.”
Those fears colored all the debates that followed. Trump stood by his previous call to block foreign Muslims from entering the United States, but Bush attacked that idea: “He’s a chaos candidate. And he’d be a chaos president.”
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Rubio attacked Cruz for a Senate vote that Rubio said had weakened the government’s capacity to gather personal data. Rubio suggested that another attack was coming, and that Cruz – and others who agreed with him – might be blamed for failing to prevent it.
“I promise you, the next time there is an attack on this country, the first thing people are going to want to know: Why didn’t we know about it? And why didn’t we stop it?” Rubio.
All of it was a strong, but unwitting, tribute to the political power of terrorism itself. Two attacks, carried out by a relatively small number of people, had entirely consumed a race to lead a vast and complicated country. The candidates onstage seemed to take for granted that Americans were fearful about whether they were safe in everyday life.
“This is not just the most capable-it is the most sophisticated terror threat that we have ever faced,” Rubio said.
At the start of the evening, Paul began with an attack on Trump and Rubio for what he called an overreaction to the terrorist attacks. Rubio, he said, had called for increased government data collection.
“I think they’re both wrong,” Rubio. “I think we defeat terrorism by showing that we do not fear them.”
But that voice of skepticism about terrorism fears was quickly lost when New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie mentioned a bomb scare that shut down Los Angeles’s enormous school system on Tuesday. The threat had been determined to be a hoax, authorities had said a few moments earlier. Christie still used it as evidence that the country was less safe under President Obama.
“America has been betrayed,” Christie said.
Earlier, in the evening’s “undercard” debate, four low-polling candidates talked almost exclusively about terrorism and the Middle East. All called for more aggressive American measures against the Islamic State. The most notable moment might have been Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (South Carolina) declaring “I miss George W. Bush,” as a way of criticizing President Obama’s foreign policy.
The Washington Post’s Sean Sullivan, Phillip Rucker, Abby Phillip, Dan Balz and Scott Clement contributed to this report.