Throughout his political career, Ronald Reagan lived by a rule that he called the 11th Commandment: “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.”
It took only moments for the four candidates on the undercard for tonight’s GOP debate at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California, to break that commandment. Asked about Donald Trump, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal described the party’s current presidential front-runner as “a narcissist who only believes in himself.”
George Pataki, the former Governor of New York, compounded the criticism, saying Mr Trump was “unfit to be the President of the United States.”
South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham later compared Mr Trump’s foreign policy pronouncements to “the Cartoon Network”.
Though The Donald was not due to appear until the main debate, his presence overshadowed the so-called “kids’ table” event.
Complaining to CNN’s debate moderator Jake Tapper, Mr Pataki said: “This is an important election with an enormous number of challenges facing the American people and the first four questions are about Donald Trump.”
South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, who put in a show-stealing performance after a lacklustre first debate last month, appeared more interested in attacking Isis than attacking Trump, emphasising his military experience in his opening remarks.
“President Obama is making a mess of the world,” Graham said, adding that, as President, he would send US ground troops back into Iraq to fight Isis.
“We’re gonna kill every one of those bastards we can find,” he said. “if we don’t destroy [Isis] soon, they’re coming here.”
Mr Graham also enjoyed a spirited exchange with former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum over the issue of immigration. Mr Santorum, criticising his fellow candidates for their support of a so-called “amnesty” for illegal immigrants, said the GOP needed to “win with Americans.”
Mr Graham, rolling his eyes at his opponent, replied: “In my world, Hispanics are Americans.”
Indeed, Graham had such a quotable afternoon that conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt, one of the CNN panellists, told him during the broadcast that he was “having a good debate”.
Given the opportunity to argue with one another directly, the four candidates were able to open up substantial gaps between their policies and personal beliefs.
Mr Pataki and Mr Santorum, for example, disagreed on the case of Kim Davis, a Kentucky County clerk who was recently briefly jailed for her refusal to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, in defiance of the US Supreme Court.
Mr Santorum, a strict Catholic and social conservative, denounced the Court’s decision to strike down gay marriage bans across the US. Pataki, by contrast, said: “I think [Kim Davis] should have been fired. We have to uphold the rule of law.”
The candidates also found time to name-check the President who gave the debate venue its name.
Mr Graham suggested that Russian forces would not be in Ukraine if Reagan were still in the White House, while Mr Pataki reminisced fondly about the 40th President’s sunny optimism. “When I think of Ronald Reagan,” he said, “I think of his tremendous smile.”
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