Billionaire businessman Donald Trump embraced the label of “angry” and Sen. Ted Cruz fended off repeated questions about his finances and his eligibility to be president as the two men led the rest of the presidential field in Thursday’s debate, amid growing concerns about President Obama’s foreign policy.
Mr. Cruz dismissed questions about his financial disclosure forms as a biased attack from The New York Times, and told Mr. Trump to quit questioning whether his birth to a Cuban father and American mother in Canada disqualifies him to be president under the Constitution’s requirements.
But Mr. Trump refused to back down on the “birther” controversy, pointing to legal scholars who have said Mr. Cruz’s eligibility is an unsettled question, and saying Republicans cannot gamble on picking the senator as their champion heading into November’s election.
“If you become the nominee, who the hell knows if you can even serve in office?” Mr. Trump said. “There’s a big question mark on your head, and you can’t do that to the party.”
He promised he wouldn’t bring a lawsuit, but said it was certain Democrats would.
Mr. Cruz, a successful lawyer himself, joked that he wasn’t going to take legal advice from someone else, and said Mr. Trump himself just a few months ago had said Mr. Cruz’s birth wasn’t an issue.
SEE ALSO: Trump, Cruz go at each other in year’s first GOP debate
“Back in September, my friend Donald said that he had his lawyers look at this from every which way and there was no issue there,” Mr. Cruz said. “There was nothing to this birther issue. Now since September, the Constitution hasn’t changed, but the poll numbers have, and I recognize that Donald is dismayed that his poll numbers have fallen in Iowa.”
Seven candidates squared off in South Carolina in the prime-time debate, aired by Fox Business Network, and with less than three weeks to go before the first votes of the primary are cast, the candidates were chippy with each other, seeking to break from the pack.
Sen. Marco Rubio said New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is too liberal to be the Republicans’ nominee, pointing to his support for Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor and his state’s embrace of the Common Core education standards.
Mr. Christie retorted that he didn’t support Justice Sotomayor — though the record shows he did issue a statement supporting her nomination by Mr. Obama — and said New Jersey has recently canceled Common Core.
Mr. Obama’s performance in the Oval Office continued to irk the entire field, with the candidates blasting him for failing in his State of the Union address Tuesday to mention the capture of 10 American sailors by Iran earlier that day.
While vowing never to let U.S. troops be humiliated like that, the Republican candidates said Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton would continue the Obama approach that led to the embarrassing incident.
SEE ALSO: Marco Rubio declares Hillary Clinton ‘disqualified’ from being commander in chief
“If you’re worried about the world being on fire, you’re worried about how we’re going to use our military, you’re worried about strengthening our military and you’re worried about most of all keeping your homes and your families safe and secure, you cannot give Hillary Clinton a third term of Barack Obama’s leadership,” Mr. Christie said.
Mr. Rubio said Mrs. Clinton has “disqualified” herself from being commander in chief because of accusations that she mishandled classified information during her time helming the State Department, and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush warned that Mrs. Clinton would be a “national security disaster.”
“She is under investigation with the FBI right now,” Mr. Bush said. “Her first hundred days, she might be going back and forth between the White House and the courthouse.”
Mr. Trump himself defended his demand for a pause in admitting Muslim immigrants and visitors to the U.S., pointing to Thursday’s terrorist attack in Indonesia and last year’s attack in Paris as evidence that his policies are needed.
“We have a serious problem, and we can’t be the stupid country any more,” Mr. Trump said.
For his part, Mr. Cruz defended himself against a New York Times article this week that said he omitted a sizable loan on one of his early financial disclosure forms when he was elected to the Senate. Mr. Cruz said it was an oversight and he did disclose the loan on later forms, and he blasted the newspaper for bias.
“If that is the best hit The New York Times has got, they better go back to the well,” he said.
The prime-time debate was slimmer than the past, with Sen. Rand Paul and businesswoman Carly Fiorina having been demoted to the undercard debate due to poor poll numbers.
That left Mr. Trump still at center stage, as he has been for most of the campaign, and flanked by Mr. Cruz and Mr. Rubio, who are his closest competitors. Beside them were retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and Mr. Christie, who has pushed Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Mr. Bush to the wings of the stage.
The voting begins Feb. 1 with Iowa’s caucuses, followed by the New Hampshire primary on Feb. 9 and South Carolina’s primary on Feb. 20.
Mr. Trump holds a commanding lead in polls in New Hampshire and South Carolina, but he is neck-and-neck with Mr. Cruz in Iowa.
The prospect of Mr. Trump — and to a lesser extent Mr. Cruz — capturing the nomination is scaring Republican establishment figures.
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Halley this week targeted Mr. Trump in the Republican response to Mr. Obama’s State of the Union address, warning that in “anxious times, it can be tempting to follow the siren call of the angriest voices. We must resist that temptation.”
Mr. Trump not only didn’t shy away from the comment but embraced it, saying it was a good description.
“I’m very angry, because our country is being run horribly, and I will gladly accept the mantle of anger,” he said.
Those kinds of comments have made Democrats eager to boost Mr. Trump and to try to tie the rest of the Republican Party to him.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid announced plans Thursday to force his chamber to vote on Mr. Trump’s ideas by offering them as amendments to other bills. He said that will force Republicans into taking political damaging votes to either side with Mr. Trump, or break with him, exposing rifts within the GOP.
Mr. Trump dominates the conversation and Mr. Cruz has carved out space for himself, but the rest of the candidates are still struggling to separate from the pack. And with time running short, the attacks have grown more frequent and more pointed.
The pro-Rubio Conservative Solutions PAC ran ad on Fox Business Network prior to the debate that dinged Mr. Bush for burning through tons of money on his struggling campaign and touted Mr. Rubio as an “expert on national security” and as a candidate who takes “on the establishment and wins.”
Mr. Bush, for his part, released an attack ad in New Hampshire bemoaning the beating he’s taken at the hands of the front-runner.
“Donald Trump is a jerk,” Mr. Bush said in the ad, which features footage from a town-hall event.
Hours before the prime-time debate three other candidates — Mrs. Fiorina, former Sen. Rick Santorum and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee — squared off in the undercard debate.
Mr. Paul, who like Mrs. Fiorina was ousted from the top-tier debate, declined to appear, saying he was protesting the criteria Fox Business used.
But the three candidates who did appear took aim at Mr. Obama, blaming him for a still-sluggish economy at home and a weak policy that’s failing to stifle the Islamic State and other terrorists abroad.
Mrs. Fiorina also tried to link Mr. Trump to Mrs. Clinton, saying they share the same anti-free market approach to governing.
“We have to end the crony capitalism — the crony capitalism that starts with both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton,” Mrs. Fiorina said. “Hillary Clinton sits inside government and rakes in millions, handing out access and favors, and Donald Trump sits outside government and rakes in billions buying people like Hillary Clinton.”