WASHINGTON – The long and awkward truce between anti-establishment favorites Donald Trump and Ted Cruz blew apart at the Republican debate Thursday as the two men battling for first place in the Iowa caucuses tore into each other over Cruz’s eligibility to be president.
Trump has raised the “birther” issue in recent days over Cruz’s birth in Canada to an American mother — acknowledging he has done so as Cruz has strengthened in the polls — and Cruz accused him of political expediency.
“Since September, the Constitution hasn’t changed,” Cruz said in the forum aired on the Fox Business Network. “But the poll numbers have.”
It was by far the sharpest exchange of the night — and a rare point of disagreement among the seven men on stage — who spent the rest of debate tearing into President Barack Obama, and not each other. In doing so, they left their standing coming out the debate roughly the same as when they went in: Trump and Cruz battling for the mantle of front-runner in the Feb. 1 Iowa contest, with Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s strong performance keeping him the most likely establishment contender for the nomination but in a distant third place.
Here is the tale of the tape:
It was sure to be the main event of the debate in North Charleston, South Carolina — Trump vs. Cruz over whether the Texas senator can be president. For Republican primary viewers trying to decide between them, the exchange didn’t disappoint.
In recent days, Trump — who once questioned whether Obama was born in Hawaii — has questioned whether Cruz might not meet the constitutional requirement that the president be a “natural-born citizen.” Trump said he merely wanted to save the party the consequences of nominating Cruz for president — or even perhaps of being Trump’s own vice presidential running mate — only to find out he would get kicked off the ballot.
Trump said that while he didn’t personally consider Cruz’s birth an issue, he was certain that Democrats would bring a lawsuit.
“There’s a big overhang, there’s a big question mark. And you can’t do that to the party,” Trump said.
He also repeatedly invoked Laurence Tribe, Cruz’s Harvard law school professor who has written that the senator could be ineligible.
Cruz was having none of it.
Cruz has said the fact his mother was an American citizen and that he immediately received U.S. citizenship satisfies any questions about the issue, and argued Trump’s motivations were political.
He stepped up that defense Thursday, noting that Trump had said in September he believed Cruz could serve as president. He also noted that John McCain, the GOP nominee in 2008, and George Romney, the Michigan governor — and father of 2012 nominee Mitt Romney — who ran for president had both been born abroad.
And Cruz dismissed Tribe as partisan — noting he supports Hillary Clinton’s candidacy — and said there was zero chance of “litigation proceeding and succeeding on this area.”
Cruz came into the night knowing he would have to answer for reports questioning whether he failed to properly disclose hundreds of thousands of dollars of loans from Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and Citigroup Inc. during his 2012 Senate campaign.
The good news for Cruz, though, is that none of his opponents attacked him on it. He gave a series of answers that may well have put the issue to rest for many Republican primary voters.
First, he unleashed an attack on the media: “Thank you for passing along that hit piece on the front page of the New York Times,” Cruz quipped to moderator Maria Bartiromo.
Then he suggested he needed the money solely because he is such an outsider that few establishment donors would back him in his run for the U.S. Senate.
And lastly, he tried to brush it off as a “paperwork error,” with no intent to shield the loan from disclosure. He finished, and the debate moved on.
The Times reported that the Texas senator didn’t inform the Federal Election Commission about the two personal loans, although he listed them on his Senate personal financial disclosure. His wife is an investment banker for Goldman Sachs in Houston, but is currently on leave as the senator campaigns for president.
Cruz’s campaign said he would amend any necessary campaign filings.
“If that’s the best hit the New York Times has got, they better go back to the well,” he said.
With Iran showing a video of 10 American sailors kneeling in custody, the Republican candidates were eager to criticize Obama’s handling of foreign policy. They offered sharp sound bites and sought to one-up one another with colorful criticisms of the administration.
What they didn’t offer: specifics on how they would have handled the incident differently.
On Tuesday, 10 American sailors who entered Iranian waters were detained overnight before being released. One of the sailors was videotaped apologizing for the incident, while a female crew member was given a head scarf to wear.
No doubt, the timing was awkward for Obama, who used his State of the Union speech that night to tout the Iranian nuclear deal without mentioning the incident, and Republicans took full advantage.
“No serviceman or servicewoman will be forced to be on their knees” by a foreign power, if he’s president, Cruz said.
Rubio extended the criticism to Democratic front-runner Clinton, saying she had “disqualified” herself from the job by mishandling classified information in her e-mails and “lying” to the families of those killed in the Benghazi attacks.
Chris Christie joked that the president’s State of the Union reminded him of “story time” and that Secretary of State John Kerry’s handling of the Iran naval incident was “disgraceful.” U.S. ships shouldn’t be seized by “tin-pot dictators like the mullahs in Iran,” the New Jersey governor said.
But Cruz also inaccurately exaggerated the results of the Iranian nuclear deal, slamming Obama over the agreement and saying the president was on the verge of handing over “$100 billion or more to the Ayatollah.”
Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew has said the frozen Iranian assets that will become available for the government in Tehran is far less. “In reality, $58 to $59 billion of that is unavailable — roughly $20 billion is tied up in contracts like China, and the balance is things like nonperforming loans,” Lew told Congress last year.
While none of the candidates provided detailed plans on how they would tackle Iran or Islamic State terrorists, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush provided a rambling answer that touched on Dodd-Frank financial reform and the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s probe into Clinton’s e-mail practices. And Trump stumbled through a defense of his call to ban Muslim immigration, a proposal that has come under fire from both the White House and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who gave the Republican response to the State of the Union.
Cruz and Trump provided most of the action, but Rubio scored points late with a withering attack on Cruz’s voting record, another in a series of strong debate performances that haven’t translated into a big leap in the polls.
Painting the Texas senator as a political opportunist, Rubio said Cruz had shifted his stance on expanding visas for high-tech workers, allowing more guest workers and legalizing undocumented immigrants. Rubio said Cruz had joined Sens. Rand Paul, a Republican presidential candidate, and Bernie Sanders, who is seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, in voting against the defense authorization bill.
Rubio also said Cruz was pandering to Iowa voters by flipping his votes on crop insurance and ethanol.
“That’s not consistent conservatism,” Rubio said.
Cruz swiped back, saying he appreciated Rubio “dumping your oppo-research folder on the debate stage.” He blasted Rubio’s previous decision to back a comprehensive immigration overhaul, saying he should have foreseen the risks in doing so.
Rubio also scored points on one of his establishment opponents: Christie.
Rubio said Christie had donated to Planned Parenthood, a target of Republicans because it performs abortions, and hit his record as governor of New Jersey.
The Florida senator also elicited strong and sustained applause by attacking two people not on the stage: Obama and Clinton.
Rubio said Obama “has consistently underestimated the threat of ISIS,” an acronym for Islamic State. And Rubio said he was “convinced that if this president could get rid of every gun in America, he would.”
Clinton is “disqualified from being commander-in-chief” over her use of a private e-mail server to conduct State Department business, he said.
New York values
A smirking attack by Cruz on Trump’s “New York values” gave the real estate mogul the opportunity to defend his hometown — and provide one of his strongest debate moments yet.
While Cruz elicited some applause and laughter when he painted New Yorkers as socially liberal and fixated on money and the media, Trump passionately invoked the city’s response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
“When the World Trade Center came down, I saw something no place on earth could have handled more beautifully, more humanely,” Trump said, prompting loud applause in the auditorium.
Trump, who has developed major construction projects around the city, described the “horrific cleanup” in the aftermath of the attack and the “smell of death” that lingered in the air.
And the Texas senator’s quip that “not a lot of conservatives come out of Manhattan” could come as a surprise to the Wall Street donors the eventual Republican nominee will need to help underwrite their campaign.
Trump defended the city’s population as family-oriented, and said National Review founder and conservative icon William F. Buckley Jr. hailed from the city.
“That was a very insulting statement that Ted made,” Trump said.