NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. —The mutually beneficial campaign detente between billionaire Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz (Texas) came to an end on the debate stage here Thursday.
Until recently, it was in both candidate’s interest to avoid a direct confrontation. Cruz was leery of alienating Trump’s supporters – who might come to him, if the billionaire stumbles. Trump, for his part, did not consider Cruz much of a threat.
But now, the two Republican presidential candidates are locked in a tight race to win the Feb. 1 Iowa caucuses. In Thursday’s debate, the sixth so far for the Republican presidential candidates, they went so far as to question each other’s fitness to govern.
Trump contended that Cruz’s birth to a U.S. citizen in Canada might disqualify him from becoming president because the Constitution decrees that only a “natural born citizen” may hold the office.
“There’s a big question mark on your head. And you can’t do that to the party. You really can’t,” Trump told Cruz.
The Texas senator retorted that Trump was motivated more by his political prospects than any constitutional concern.
“I recognize that Donald is dismayed that his poll numbers are falling in Iowa,” Cruz said. “But the facts and the law here are really quite clear. Under long-standing U.S. law, the child of a U.S. citizen born abroad is a natural-born citizen.”
Then it was Cruz’s turn to go on offense.
Repeating something he first said in a radio interview, Cruz charged that Trump had “New York values” – invoking that city’s reputation, particularly in red-state America, as the bastion of the liberal elite.
“I can frame it another way,” Cruz said. “Not a lot of conservatives come out of Manhattan. I’m just saying.”
Trump responded with indignation, saying New York City is home to “loving people, wonderful people.” He invoked the fall of the World Trade Center towers on Sept. 11, 2001, noting the “smell of death” that pervaded the city for months.
“I saw something that no place on Earth could have handled more beautifully, more humanely than New York,” Trump said. He added, “That was a very insulting statement that Ted made.”
As Trump and Cruz argued back and forth over the latter’s constitutional qualifications to be president, the other candidates struggled to get a word in. Sen. Marco Rubio (Florida) drew applause when he interjected, “I hate to interrupt this episode of Court TV, but I think we have to get back to what this election ought to be about.”
Theirs was not the only simmering argument that spilled over from the campaign trail into the debate, which was sponsored by Fox Business Network. The event gave the candidates a chance to confront each other face to face, rather than through their speeches and surrogates and allied super PACs.
Among the Republicans, several battles are going on at once. Where Trump and Cruz are each looking to win the caucuses by claiming to be the one who can slay the old order, the field also includes a host of current and former governors and senators.
Nearly as important as which candidate comes in first place is the question of which will emerge from what is being called the “establishment lane.”
Rubio repeated his charge that Chris Christie, the governor of heavily Democratic New Jersey, has been too liberal to be the standard-bearer of a conservative party. He noted that Christie once supported Common Core educational standards, backed some gun-control legislation and supported Obama’s nomination of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
“Our next president has to be someone that undoes the damage Barack Obama has done to this country,” Rubio said. “It cannot be someone that agrees with his agenda. . . . Unfortunately, Governor Christie has endorsed many of the ideas that Barack Obama supports.”
Turning to face Rubio, Christie retorted by accusing the senator of being loose with his facts and acting in false indignation because Christie has emerged as a political threat. He reminded Rubio that he had once called him “a conservative reformer that New Jersey needed” but that “he’s changed his tune.”
Christie recalled October’s debate, when Rubio responded to an attack from Bush by saying someone had convinced him that Bush had to hit his onetime protege. “It appears that the same someone has been whispering in old Marco’s ear, too,” Christie said.
He added: “Listen, this is the difference between being a governor and a senator. See, when you’re a senator, what you get to do is just talk and talk and talk. And you talk so much that nobody can ever keep up with what you’re saying is accurate or not. When you’re a governor, you’re held accountable for everything you do.”
As the leading candidates feuded, former Florida governor Jeb Bush interjected to call for a cease-fire.
“Everybody on this stage is better than [Democratic front-runner] Hillary Clinton,” he said. “I think the focus ought to be on making sure that we leave this nomination process, as wild and woolly as it’s going to be . . . to unite behind the winner so we can defeat Hillary Clinton, because she is a disaster.”
Ben Carson, the mild-mannered neurosurgeon, seconded Bush’s call. “We have to stop this because, you know, 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.”
The call did not stop Bush from going after Trump, calling his rival “unhinged” for his policies on immigration and Muslims and misguided in his plans for high tariffs on Chinese imports.
“This would be devastating for our economy. We need somebody with a steady hand being president of the United States,” Bush said in reference to tariffs, warning that they would lead to retaliatory actions by China and hurt U.S. exports there.
Trump responded with an attack on Bush’s personality.
“We don’t need a weak person being president of the United States,” Trump said, returning to an old insult that Bush is “low-energy.” “We don’t need that. We don’t need that.”
The debate came just 48 hours after President Obama delivered the final State of the Union address of his presidency, which included sharp condemnation of the angry GOP rhetoric over Muslims, immigration and other issues. At the debate, the candidates flung zinger after zinger in an attempt to out-do each other in delivering the most visceral condemnation of Obama – as well as Clinton, his first-term secretary of state and the leading Democratic presidential candidate.
Christie called Obama “a petulant child” and likened his State of the Union to “storytime” because it painted, in Christie’s view, too rosy a picture of the country.
Doing away with any sense of debate-stage decorum, Christie said, “We are going to kick your rear end out of the White House come this fall.”
The language was just as strident in discussing Clinton. Bush suggested that she “might be going back and forth between the White House and the courthouse” because she is under FBI investigation for her email practices. Then Rubio stepped up the rhetoric and charged that Clinton was “disqualified from being commander in chief.”
When co-moderator Maria Bartiromo asked Cruz about a Wednesday New York Times report that he failed to properly disclose loans from Goldman Sachs and CitiBank during his 2012 Senate campaign, Cruz used the moment to slam what he called “the mainstream media.”
“Yes, I made a paperwork error disclosing it on one piece of paper instead of the other,” Cruz said. “But if that’s the best the New York Times has got, they better go back to the well.”
Although Ohio Gov. John Kasich did not figure in the more contentious exchanges, he sought to appeal directly to frustrated middle- and working-class families.
“People are upset,” he said. “You’re 50 or 51 years old and some kid walks in and tells you you’re out of work and you don’t know where to go and where to turn. Do we have an answer for that? We do.”
The Washington Post’s David A. Fahrenthold in Washington contributed to this report.