Texas Sen. Ted Cruz took on front-runner Donald Trump during Thursday night’s Republican presidential debate when the latter questioned Cruz’s eligibility to be president because he was born in Canada. Cruz argued that if he were to be disqualified from the presidential race, Trump would be, too. “Donald’s mother was born in Scotland. She was naturalized,” Cruz said.
The moment set the tone for the first debate of the year and exemplified the intensified mood as the candidates entered the final days before the first 2016 nominating contests. Beyond Cruz and Trump, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie also scored points as they debated policy issues, and many pundits and those on social media seemed to think all four candidates won the night.
With the Iowa caucuses less than three weeks away, the candidates ramped up their attacks against one another and against Democrats as they sought to stand out and prove their conservative credentials. Cruz and Trump in particular seemed to completely forget their unspoken truce from last year; the two leading candidates tore into each other over personal issues such as Cruz’s eligibility to be president and Trump’s “New York values.”
— Frank Luntz (@FrankLuntz) January 15, 2016
On the campaign trail, Trump has been claiming that Cruz’s Canadian birth means he is not necessarily a natural-born citizen and therefore could make him vulnerable to litigation from Democrats. But in Thursday night’s debate, Trump admitted that he was bringing up the issue because Cruz has been “doing a little bit better” in the polls. In turn, the Texas senator hit back at Trump by accusing him of holding “New York values” and alleging that the businessman is not a true conservative.
These spats gained lots of attention on social media. According to Facebook, Trump, Cruz and Rubio were the top three candidates discussed on the social network during the debate. The top social moment, Facebook said, was Cruz’s line: “I’m not going to take legal advice from Donald Trump,” during the pair’s exchange about Cruz’s eligibility to be president.
While the previous Fox Business Network debate focused on economic issues, much of the discussion Thursday centered on the candidates’ records on foreign policy, immigration and tax plans.
— Republicans (@NRSC) January 15, 2016
The field was slightly smaller than previous showdowns, as Carly Fiorina and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul were bumped off the main stage. Paul decided to boycott the early debate, earning some attention for his #RandRally hashtag on Twitter during the event, while Fiorina delivered a characteristically strong performance against former Arkansas Mike Huckabee and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.
In addition to taking swipes at one another, many of the GOP candidates came out swinging against President Barack Obama and Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton Thursday night. Christie called the president a “petulant child” for using executive actions to implement his preferred policies — an area in which Rubio and Bush also piled on. “We are going to kick your rear end out of the White House come this fall,” Christie said.
Trump talked about trade, and Rubio got aggressive on terrorism, saying he would take a much tougher approach to “radical jihadist terrorists” than the current administration. At times, the GOPers often seemed as though they were trying to outdo one another in their attacks on Clinton and Democrats. In his closing statement, Cruz mentioned the Michael Bay movie “13 Hours,” which depicts the attack on a U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, that occurred during Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state.
But by the end of the night it seemed certain that Thursday’s debate would largely not change the 2016 race. Cruz, Trump and Rubio have been leading in polls for some time, and Christie has done well in debates before, but his performances have not significantly altered his poll numbers.
The latter — as well as the other candidates — have another shot at glory before Iowa, however. The candidates in two weeks will have one last chance to prove themselves in front of voters before the primary contests begin.