Vegas GOP Debate Showdown: Rubio vs. Cruz & Bush vs. Trump

The Republican presidential candidates gathered for the fifth debate held in the Venetian hotel in Sin City, Las Vegas. The last debate showdown of 2015 featured nine GOP hopefuls sharing the stage for the first time since the recent terror attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California. In a debate that solely focused on national security and terrorism, candidates fought to outshine one another Tuesday night, reminding viewers of their national security credentials while sparking personal attacks in a substantive debate that succeeded in clarifying each of the candidates’ foreign policy views.

For GOP primary voters, the debate produced a few memorable moments as the race goes into a temporary halt with the holiday season approaching and it enters the final stretch before the Iowa caucuses. But this debate showdown amongst the candidates was a reminder of the contest that will continue on until February.

Here are moments from CNN’s Vegas rumble debate.

151215214931-marco-rubio-ted-cruz-cnn-gop-debate-isis-terrorism-voting-record-15-00004907-full-169Rubio vs. Cruz alongside Paul Rumble

One of the night’s fiercest matchup centered around two young Senators vying to become the leading Republican alternative to Trump and the gloves came off for both. The simmering feud between Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio finally broke open with both dominating the debate stage in a series of fiery exchanges devoted to foreign policy, immigration and national security.

Ted Cruz, who has gained the most traction in poll numbers (placing second in national polls and leading in Iowa by ten points), has become a major target. Right behind Cruz is Rubio, who is third in national polls and has been taking shots at Cruz in an effort to halt his momentum. Cruz has avoided political conflict throughout the campaign with his rivals, while Rubio has run attack ads against Cruz. With 50 days until the Iowa caucus, the attacks between both Senators show no signs of stopping and could get ugly.

The attack began with Rubio when he was asked about voting against the USA Freedom Act which Cruz voted for. Cruz defended his position of voting for the replacement law, stating it not only respects civil liberties by preventing the government from collecting bulk data, but it “strengthened the tools of national security and law enforcement to go after terrorists.” Rubio responded that the new program took away the tools needed to capture the increasingly sophisticated terror threats we are facing. “We are now at a time when we need more tools, not less tools. And that tool we lost, the metadata program, was a valuable tool that we no longer have at our disposal,” Rubio said.

Cruz continued to defend his position, accusing the Senator of misleading the effectiveness of the NSA program. “The old program covered 20 percent to 30 percent of phone numbers to search for terrorists,” Cruz said. “The new program covers nearly 100 percent. That gives us greater ability to stop acts of terrorism, and [Rubio] knows that that’s the case.” Rubio countered Cruz, saying he didn’t think 15 million Americans watching “is the place to discuss classified information” while adding if another attack occurred “people are going to ask is why they didn’t know about it and why we didn’t stop it.”

Senator Rand Paul, the most vocal critic of the metadata program, was asked why he calls for increased surveillance “hogwash.” Paul backed Cruz, forming a tag-team duo to corner Rubio and call him out, Paul would turn the tables on Rubio by criticizing Rubio’s opposition and his allegiance to liberals with the ‘Gang of Eight’ bill. “I think Marco gets it completely wrong. We are not any safer through the bulk collection of all Americans’ records,” Paul said. “I think we’re less safe. We get so distracted by all of the information, we’re not spending enough time getting specific immigration, specific information on terrorists.” Paul added that Rubio can’t say he is strong on national defense when he opposes his introduced bill on security.

“[Marco] is the weakest of all the candidates on immigration, “ Paul said, adding he wants open borders. “Marco has more of an allegiance to Chuck Schumer and to the liberals than he does to conservative policy.”

The most heated exchange between Cruz and Rubio during the debate was on the issue of immigration. Rubio was asked by CNN moderator Dana Bash about his 2013 co-sponsored support for ‘Gang of Eight’ immigration reform bill and if he still supports a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. “Yeah… The American people don’t trust the Federal Government to enforce our immigration laws, and we will not be able to do anything on immigration until we first prove to the American people that illegal immigration is under control,” he said.

Rubio provided specifics on what it takes to bring illegal immigration under control with 20,000 additional border agents, 700 miles of fencing, mandatory e-verify system, and an entry/exit tracking system. Bash would re-ask Rubio the question, pointing out his long answer described didn’t answer the question. Rubio finally stated that he is “personally open…after ten years probationary status, to allow those to apply for a green card” even though it may not be a majority position of the Republican Party.

Cruz was then asked if his immigration plan is similar to Rubio’s, which spurred Cruz to go on attack mode to declare he doesn’t support any pathway to legalization. “I understand Marco wants to raise confusion, it is not accurate what he just said that I supported legalization,” Cruz said. “I led the fight against his legalization and amnesty. For Marco to suggest our record’s the same is like suggesting the fireman and the arsonist because they are both at the scene of the fire.”

Another sharp division between Cruz and Rubio was the issue of involving defense spending and America’s approach to defeat ISIS. During this campaign, Rubio has positioned himself as a hawkish neoconservative when it comes to national security as opposed to Cruz, who believes in taking the middle ground towards an interventionism approach. When asked about how each would fight against radical Islam, Cruz reiterated his position of using overwhelming air power as a means to completely destroy ISIS. Rubio dismissed this plan, saying they can’t solely be defeated through air strikes, arguing that due to budget cuts conducting air strikes are done with the oldest and the smallest Air Force.

Bring up the Defense Authorization Act, Rubio pointed out how Cruz voted against the bill three times that would fund our troops. “You can’t carpet bomb ISIS if you don’t have planes and bombs to attack them with,” Rubio snapped. “If we continue those cuts that we’re doing now, we are going to be left with the oldest and the smallest Air Force this country has ever had, and that leaves us less safe.”

After Rubio portrayed Cruz as soft when it comes to national security via insults, Cruz defended his reasoning as to why he voted against the National Defense Act. He pointed to a campaign promise of opposing federal government having the authority to detain U.S. citizens without due promise, a clause that is in the bill that Cruz wants removed. Cruz then mentioned how Rubio’s foreign policy is in line with the Democrats. “One of the problems with Marco’s foreign policy is he has far too often supported Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in undermining governments in the Middle East that have helped radical Islamic terrorists.”

Another specific issue dividing the two candidates that highlights a huge ideological difference is the issue on how to handle Syrian dictator Assad. Rubio favors a military intervention to depose Assad, while Cruz and Paul both oppose removing Assad. When ask by Blitzer if he regrets supporting the removal of Moammar Gadhafi in Libya (which has led to turmoil and the growth of ISIS), Rubio defended his support. “The reason why I argued we needed to get involved is because the longer that civil war took, the more militias would be formed and the more unstable the country would be,” Rubio said, adding we have to work with the government to remove the anti-American dictators to support regime change.

Cruz hit back on Rubio’s assertion of overthrowing dictators to try to promote democracy with moderate rebels taking over, which has resulted in countries being run by jihadists. “We need to learn from history; these same leaders — Obama, Clinton, and too many Republicans–want to topple Assad,” he said. “Assad is a bad man. Gadhafi was a bad man. Mubarak had a terrible human rights record. But they were assisting us, at least Gadhafi and Mubarak, in fighting radical Islamic terrorists.” Cruz added the moderate rebels are rare “mythical purple unicorns” that President Obama, Hillary Clinton and the Washington Republicans like Rubio are searching for only to find out they end up being jihadists.

hqdefault 10.49.38 AMBush vs. Trump Rematch

After a series of mediocre debate performances, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush was eager to put up a fight and leave a mark. With his campaign on life support (the latest national polls have him at 3%), Bush finally put up a fight by attempting to lock horns with GOP front-runner Donald Trump.

When CNN moderator Wolf Blitzer asked Bush why he called Trump “unhinged” for his proposed ban on Muslims from entering the U.S., Bush answered “this is not a serious proposal.” Bush said the plan will make it harder for U.S. to destroy ISIS if we ban Muslims. He continued to attack Trump, which began an escalation between the two men, exchanging verbal blows throughout the night.

“So Donald is great at one-liners, but he is a chaos candidate,” Bush said.

“He said that very simply because he has failed in this campaign. It’s been a total disaster,” Trump fired back dismissing Bush’s attack.

Trump is currently leading with 41 percent in a Monmouth poll and 38% in Post/ABC poll, the two latest national polls since Trump called for banning of Muslims, proving that perhaps Americans support his proposed ban. With Trump holding the front-runner lead nationally since the summer, Bush, who doesn’t pose any threat to his campaign, attempted to prove he can take down Trump to save his struggling campaign. But as we have seen in this race so far, any conflict with Trump only elevates him and his poll numbers as the antagonist diminishes away.

Appearing more confident and aggressive than in previous debates, Bush would continue with his debate plan of disputing Trump’s past remarks. Trump was asked about his proposal to go after family members of terrorists, something Bush called “crazy.”

“This is another example of the lack of seriousness,” Bush said. “The idea that is a solution to this is just crazy, it makes no sense to suggest this.”

This led to the two exchanging a heated argument that shifted into personal attacks. “Honestly, I think Jeb is a very nice person, “Trump said. “But we need tough people. We need intelligence and we need tough.” Both interrupted each other, causing Blitzer to become a referee in the exchange brawl. “A little of your own medicine there, Donald,” Bush said.

Trump, growing irritated with Bush’s continuous snarky remarks, then made the argument personal. “I know you’re trying to build up your energy, Jeb, but it’s not working very well,” Trump.

“Donald, you’re not going to be able to insult your way to the presidency,” Bush responded.

What didn’t help the back and forth between Trump and Bush was CNN trying to force conflicts between all the candidates (and doing a good job at that). The enticement from the CNN moderators when asking Bush why he is better to deal with Vladimir Putin than Trump, would lead to Trump turning the tables on CNN by also attacking them. Bush responded to the question by pointing out he won’t get his foreign policy advice from television, a remark Trump recently stated on Meet the Press .“I won’t get my information from the shows,” Bush said.  “I don’t know if that’s Saturday morning or Sunday morning, I don’t know which one,” Bush continued, suggesting Trump gets his information by watching cartoons. Trump countered Bush’s response by condemning CNN for being “very unprofessional” for starting questions with “Mr. Trump said this, Mr. Trump said that” in order to get ratings.

Bush jumped back into the fold by scolding Trump, saying world leaders should be tougher than the moderators. “This is a tough business to run for president,” Bush responded. “Look, the simple fact is if you think this is tough and you’re not being treated fairly, imagine what it’s going to be like dealing with Putin or dealing with President Xi or dealing with the Islamic terrorism that exists.” Trump fired back mocking Bush comment. “Oh, yeah, you’re a tough guy, Jeb, real tough,” Trump responded, to laughter that turned into another personal confrontation. “You’re never going to be president of the United States by insulting your way to the presidency,” Bush restated.

Trump responded by touting his poll numbers, pointing out how Bush used to be in the center of the stage before his poll number drastically dropped. “Well, let’s see. I’m at 42, and you’re at 3. So, I’m doing better,” Trump said which led to audience booing at his response. “You know, you started off over here, Jeb. You’re moving over further and further. Pretty soon you’re going to be off the end.”

Overall, Bush’s exchanges with Trump showed a breathe of life with his counter attack performance as his campaign continues to hang by a thread despite his hefty war chest and his family legacy. The question remains if Bush’s new strategy will help or hurt his campaign before entering the New Year.

And here are the results of a PolitiChicks poll conducted during the debate in which attendees were asked, “If you could vote tomorrow, who would you elect president?”

  1.  Ted Cruz
  2. Donald Trump
  3. Rand Paul
  4. Dr. Ben Carson
  5. John Kasich
  6. Carly Fiorina

Mona Salama

Mona Salama is a PolitiChicks political reporter based in New York City covering politics and NYPD. She reports broadly on the 2016 campaign trail from the road and at home. Prior to joining PolitiChicks, Mona started with Wayne Dupree's WAAR where she covered NY politics, 2014 mid-term elections, and the NYPD. In 2015, DC Gazette considers Mona as one of the 20 rising Conservative stars. She was cited as "generally one of the most stunning women in political commentary with a huge future ahead of her, we’re pretty sure Mona Salama will soon easily be the next Andrea Tantaros and a common conservative household name." Currently she is finishing her Masters, all while at the same time covering the 2016 Presidential race, in Public Policy at John Jay College in New York City. Mona can be followed on twitter at @MonaSalama_ and email: [email protected]

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