Ted Cruz defended his U.S. citizenship and qualification to be president in a sharply personal Republican debate Thursday, charging that rival Donald Trump and liberal Democrats are raising the question only because they see Cruz as a threat to beat them all for the White House.
Cruz, a Texas senator who was born in Canada to a mother who was a U.S. citizen, tried to brush aside the question of his citizenship as a joking matter, but grew pointed as he lambasted those who have insisted it should be reason for the party to deny him the nomination.
“I’ve spent my entire life defending the Constitution before the U.S. Supreme Court. And I’ll tell you, I’m not going to be taking legal advice from Donald Trump,” Cruz said.
“There is a big question mark over his head,” said Trump.
Heated exchanges between the two dominated the seven-candidate debate and underscored the escalating stakes as the campaign races toward the first votes, starting in less than three weeks with Trump and Cruz neck and neck.
The key moments in the debate:
Born in the USA?
Cruz pointedly argued that his citizenship is not in doubt, and that Trump once agreed.
“Back in September, my friend Donald said that he had had his lawyers look at this from every which way, and there was no issue there. There was nothing to this birther issue,” Cruz said.
“Now, since September, the Constitution hasn’t changed. But the poll numbers have,” he added. “Donald is dismayed that his poll numbers are falling in Iowa. 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.”
Cruz sought to turn the tables, noting that some “birthers” suggest that “natural born” Americans must have two American parents – a holding that would disqualify himself, Marco Rubio and Trump – whose mother was born in Scotland.
“But I was born here, big difference,” Trump interjected.
Trump insisted there are scholars – including Harvard’s Laurence Tribe – who say it is unsettled law whether Cruz is a “natural born citizen.”
“The fact is, you have a big question mark on your head and you can’t do that to the party. You have to have certainty,” Trump said. “I’m not bringing a suit, but the Democrats are going to.”
Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Fla., has said he will file a lawsuit challenging Ted Cruz’s citizenship and eligibility to be president if he wins the GOP nomination
Cruz called Tribe a Clinton supporter and said she was hoping to run against Trump.
Cruz brushed aside a New York TImes story that he said he’d failed to report a big loan on his Federal Election Commission report.
“When I was running for Senate, unlike Hillary Clinton, I didn’t have masses of money in the bank,” he said, adding that he and his wife had invested all that they’d had in the race, and disclosed the loan on one required filing but not on a second.
“It was a paperwork error,” he said, calling the story a “hit piece.”
Former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida and Trump sparred over Trump’s call to bar “all Muslims” from entering the country, with Bush saying it sends the wrong message to the world.
“All Muslims? Seriously?” Bush said, asking Trump to reconsider. “I can see why people are angry and scared. . . . I totally get that . . . but you cannot make rash statements.”
Bush also noted that Trump's ban would include Muslims from U.S. allies such as India and Indonesia.
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Trump refused to back down, saying he’s calling for a temporary ban. “I’m tired of seeing what’s going on, people come in, they live, they shoot. We have a serious problem with radical Islam.”
The other candidates said they didn’t support a total ban but most backed tighter screenings, particularly for Syrians.
State of the world – GOP view
Republicans cast a far different vision of the world than President Barack Obama did in his State of the Union address earlier this week.
Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey called that “storytime with Barack Obama.”
“If you’re worried about the world being on fire . . . you cannot give Hillary Clinton a third term of Barack Obama’s leadership,” said Christie.
Former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida said “the world has been torn asunder” under the watch of Obama and former Secretary of State Clinton.
Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida also slammed Clinton for having classified material on her private email server while secretary of state.
“She’s under investigation by the FBI. Her first 100 days she might be going back and forth between the White House and the courthouse,” said Bush.
“Unlike another woman in this race, I actually love spending time with my husband.” former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina on Clinton.
“I hate to interrupt this episode of Court TV.” Marco Rubio as Trump and Cruz sparred over Cruz’s citizenship.
“I could say, oh, I’m not angry. I’m very angry, because our country is being run horribly and I will gladly accept the mantle of anger.” Donald Trump
The not-ready-for-prime-time debate was down to just three lower-polling candidates, including the last two winners of the Iowa caucuses, former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. They and Fiorina largely focused on the Obama administration and Clinton, not their Republican rivals.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., boycotted the event when he failed to make the polling cut for the top debate, and was teased for it.
“I know I’m out of time,” Santorum said in his closing statement, “but I’m going to take some of Rand Paul’s time.”
Thomma reported from Washington.