Each in a different way, all nine Republican presidential candidates in the main round of Tuesday’s CNN debate rolled out their own brands of tough talk in the first such televised GOP forum since the terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernadino and the last of this year.
But the grim marathon discussion covering war, domestic security and the limits of surveillance also followed strategies that might have been in effect no matter what the topic.
For one: Texas Sen. Ted Cruz has risen in polls against the bombastic billionaire Donald Trump, and some political operatives predicted that he would avoid blasting him, given the incentive to pick off rather than alienate Trump supporters.
So in one exchange, Cruz avoided the question from a moderator as to whether he considered Trump — who’d attacked Cruz’s “temperament” beforehand — was really qualified to become the nation’s commander-in-chief. Cruz instead called it a “real danger” when “people get distracted by peripheral issues” and how the focus needed to be on defeating jihadism, ISIS and Iranian nuclear capability.
Also as expected, Cruz did exchange fire with fellow Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, his fellow 44-year-old Cuban-American first-termer as they tangled over immigration and other issues deemed to be on-topic.
Rubio challenged Cruz’s stance on using military aircraft to attack ISIS bases, saying ground forces and Sunni Arab support were necessary — and that Cruz had backed a bill to “radically” reduce the military.
“Marco has continued these attacks and he knows they’re not true,” Cruz said. “Let’s be absolutely clear: ISIS and radical Islamic terrorism will face no more determined foe that I will be.”
Probably the nastiest brawl came as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush went after Trump on his controversial urging of a temporary halt to letting any Muslims into the United States. Saying it would hurt rather than help, Bush called Trump’s statement “not a serious proposal . . . We need a serious leader to deal with this.”
“Donald is great at one-liners but he’s a chaos candidate,” Bush said. “He’d be a chaos president.”
Trump in turn taunted Bush as having a failed campaign. Bush also slammed the real-estate heir’s “lack of seriousness” in suggesting the U.S. pursue the families of ISIS members. Trump suggested Bush wasn’t tough enough. Bush talked over him and when Trump complained, he referrred to having given him “a little of your own medicine” and on it went.
Bush got a big cheer from the debate hall in Las Vegas when he chided, “Donald, you’re not going to be able to insult your way to the presidency.”
Others in the panel of nine made their presence felt whenever possible.
Carly Fiorina, the former chief executive of Hewlett-Packard, said: “Talking tough is not the same as being strong.”
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, returning to the debate among higher-polling candidates, sneeringly dismissed the experience of those who have been legislators and touted his own role as governor.
When Christie suggested aggressive action against Vladimir Putin’s Russia, which is now involved on behalf of the Assad regime in Syria, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky warned, “If you want World War III, you’ve got your candidate.”
Ben Carson brought his low-key style as before. When asked by a moderator if he sided with Paul or Rubio, who had clashed regarding surveillance, Carson said, “I think you have to ask them about that.” He said during the debate that as president he’d ask Congress to declare war against ISIS, a war he said is already under way.
Of course, all the candidates found unity in faulting President Barack Obama and his former secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, the leading Democratic candidate, for the state of the Mideast and for this nation’s vulnerability to terrorist acts.