Just as the pundits had predicted, Texas Senator Ted Cruz came under attack at last night’s Republican presidential debate in Las Vegas, after rising precipitously to second place in the party’s national polls. Against expectations, however, it was not frontrunner Donald Trump with whom he exchanged blows, but his fellow freshman Senator, Marco Rubio.
During what proved to be the most substantive debate of the Republican presidential race so far, the two men sparred over immigration, intelligence and foreign policy. Senator Rubio criticised what he saw as Senator Cruz’s support for military cuts; Senator Cruz criticised Senator Rubio for his support of the US military intervention in Libya in 2011.
Both youthful candidates at 44, Senators Cruz and Rubio are considered by many to be the most plausible remaining contenders from the right and centre of the party respectively. Their exchanges last night provided a taste of the arguments that might animate the later stages of the Republican primary contest, should their outsider rivals fade.
Until now, of course, Donald Trump has shown no sign of going quietly – and in Vegas he is on home turf. Among the gaudy carbuncles the candidates would have seen on the skyline as they arrived in the city is the Trump hotel: all 64 glittering gold storeys. They can’t tear down the building, but they surely hoped to topple the man from his perch atop the polls.
Senator Cruz, now Mr Trump’s nearest rival, was expected to challenge the frontrunner’s dominance last night, but he declined to attack The Donald directly. Instead, that task fell to Jeb Bush, the GOP’s ghost of Christmas past. Mr Bush proved more resilient than in previous debates, describing Mr Trump as “a chaos candidate” who would be “a chaos president.”
In the wake of attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, the evening’s natural focus was on national security, and Mr Trump stuck to his controversial suggestion that the US impose a temporary ban on all Muslim visitors. As President, he said, he would not only kill terrorists, but their families, too. Mr Bush, who favours tackling Isis by instituting a no-fly zone over Syria and arming the Kurds, said Mr Trump’s proposals were “not serious” and would only alienate crucial Muslim allies.
As the pair bickered over Mr Trump’s alleged lack of seriousness and Mr Bush’s alleged lack of toughness, Mr Trump at last lost his cool, complaining about what he called CNN’s “unprofessional” questions and trying to silence Mr Bush by shouting his superior poll numbers. But even if he finally drew some of his tormentor’s blood, Mr Bush may be too late to salvage his own campaign.
The crowd at the Venetian hotel and casino on the Las Vegas Strip appeared energised by the debate, booing almost as often as they applauded. At one point, Mr Trump was interrupted by a heckler from the protest group 99 Rise, who reportedly yelled complaints about “billionaire politicians” before he was removed from the event.
If Mr Trump was loud and policy-lite, then Ben Carson, standing to his right, was quiet and policy-lite. The retired neurosurgeon made the case for electing a “citizen-statesman” such as himself, saying: “I’ve had a lot of experience building things, organising things... I don’t do a lot of talking, I do a lot of doing.” Asked whether he had the stomach to order bombing raids, Carson compared being a Commander-in-Chief to his former profession, recalling those moments when he had been forced to tell children, “We’re gonna have to open your head up and take that tumour out.”
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie warmed to two of his favourite themes: the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and his rivals’ lack of executive experience. Harking back to his former role as a US attorney, he called for the restoration of the NSA’s surveillance authorities to combat terrorism, and described himself as better qualified to take tough decisions than the Senators on the stage.
Carly Fiorina similarly brandished her CV. The former Silicon Valley CEO said the US Government was “woefully behind the technology curve” and suggested she was well placed to tackle terrorism with the help of private sector technology firms. Ms Fiorina also quoted Margaret Thatcher, the second time the Iron Lady has been invoked during a GOP debate this year. “If you want something talked about, ask a man,” she said. “If you want something done, ask a woman.”
Kentucky Senator Rand Paul and Ohio Governor John Kasich, pushed to the far ends of the stage by their dismal poll numbers, both positioned themselves as voices of reason, with Senator Paul warning against too much tough talk about Syria. “We have to have a more realistic foreign policy and not a utopian one,” he said.
Governor Kasich, meanwhile, offered a message of unity that echoed one of President Obama’s old refrains: “We’re Republicans, they are Democrats, but before all of that we’re Americans,” he said. For his rival candidates, though, the greatest threat might be Islamic extremism, but the worst enemies are the President and Hillary Clinton.
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