It’s Donald Trump’s and Ted Cruz’s presidential primary, and the rest of the Republican candidates are just living in it.
The GOP’s leading contenders twice turned a seven-way debate Thursday night into a two-man show, leaving their lagging rivals even further behind on a national political stage.
Cruz unleashed a torrent of a response after a Fox Business Network moderator asked him whether he’s eligible for the presidency — a question Trump has raised because the Texas senator was born in Canada to an American mother and Cuban father.
“You know, 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.”
Cruz, a constitutional attorney now ahead of Trump in polls in the first caucus state of Iowa, then referred to “extreme” theories that contend one can only be a natural-born U.S. citizen if both parents were born on U.S. soil.
“Under that theory, not only would I be disqualified, Marco Rubio would be disqualified, Bobby Jindal would be disqualified and, interestingly enough, Donald J. Trump would be disqualified. Because Donald’s mother was born in Scotland. She was naturalized.”
“But I was born here,” Trump interjected. “Big difference.”
“On the issue of citizenship, Donald, I’m not going to use your mother’s birth against you,” Cruz continued, having just done exactly that. (“Because it wouldn’t work,” Trump opined.)
“You’re an American, as is everybody else on this stage,” Cruz concluded. “And I would suggest we focus on who is best prepared to be commander in chief, because that’s the most important question facing this country.”
With that, the Cruz-Trump truce that had lasted six months of the campaign came to a definitive end.
Trump suggested Cruz should get a court judgment anyway, to remove all doubt about his eligibility. But he was forced to admit that he had pounced on Cruz’s country of birth because “he’s doing a little bit better” in the polls. The rowdy members of the crowd in establishment North Charleston, South Carolina, did something Trump isn’t used to: They booed him.
Trump, though, seemed to get the better of Cruz in a later standoff over Cruz’s campaign-trail remark that his real-estate magnate competitor “embodies New York values.”
“Most people know exactly what New York values are,” Cruz said. “Not a lot of conservatives come out of Manhattan. I’m just sayin’.”
Trump, no longer a novice political debater, countered by recalling the city’s reaction to 9/11.
“The people in New York fought and fought and fought, and we saw more death — and even the smell of death — nobody understood it,” Trump said. “And it was with us for months, the smell, the air.”
The other four candidates in the debate had moments to stand out. Senator Rubio, of Florida, taking a notably forceful tone to try to keep up with the front-runners’ brawling style, inserted himself into the Cruz-Trump birther exchange with one of his favorite rhetorical flourishes: humor.
“I hate to interrupt this episode of Court TV,” Rubio quipped, to the audience’s delight. “But I think we have to get back to what this election has to be about. … We elected a president that is weakening America on the global stage. We elected a president that doesn’t believe in the free-enterprise system. This election has to be about reversing all of that damage.”
Rubio also didn’t hesitate to go after New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, perhaps his closest rival in New Hampshire, casting Christie as a liberal who backed the Common Core education standards, gun control and the Supreme Court nomination of President Barack Obama’s appointee, 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.”
Christie fought back: “I stood on the stage [in a past debate] and watched Marco, rather indignantly, look at Gov. [Jeb] Bush and say, someone told you that because we’re running for the same office, that criticizing me will get you to that office,” he said. “It appears that the same someone has been whispering in ol’ Marco’s ear, too.” (“You already had your chance, Marco, you blew it,” Christie later blasted Rubio over a question about the economy and entitlement reform.)
Bush stood for the first time at the far end of the debate stage, a sign of his low poll numbers. He qualified for the debate only ahead of Ohio Gov. John Kasich. Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson also made it; an earlier undercard debate included former Hewlett-Packard chief executive Carly Fiorina, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul declined an invitation to attend the low-tier debate, saying his campaign has top-tier stature, even if poll averages don’t reflect it. (“We want Rand!” some in the crowd yelled late in the debate.)
Bush at one point defended Christie’s record, and then pivoted to bash Democrat Hillary Clinton — going as far as to say that his opponents shouldn’t make too much fuss about a recent spate of “wild and woolly” attack ads, a line that was striking coming from the man who helped raise more than $100 million for his allied super PAC.
“Everybody’s record’s going to be scrutinized, and at the end of the day, we need to be united behind the winner so we can defeat Hillary Clinton, because she is a disaster,” he said.
Rubio, though, one-upped him.
“She wouldn’t just be a disaster: Hillary Clinton is disqualified from being commander in chief of the United States.”