The final Republican debate before the Iowa caucuses has ended in Des Moines, Iowa.
Businessman Donald Trump boycotted the debate, which is sponsored by Fox News. That left seven presidential candidates on the main stage: Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and Ohio Gov. John Kasich.
Allowed to give wide-ranging closing statements, the candidates took different paths.
“Thanks for having me back,” Paul joked, a reference to his being blocked from the previous debate because of his low poll ratings. Referring to his promise to reduce the size of government, the Kentucky senator said he was the one candidate with a real plan to reduce the federal budget.
“The world looks at us sometimes and says: Why can’t we solve problems? I’ve got news for you. We can,” Kasich said, adding that what’s needed is a heavy dose of optimism to unite the nation.
“Terrorism in this country scares everyone,” Christie said, again referring to the 9/11 attacks. He said he was the only candidate to prosecute terrorists and know what it’s like to “fear loss.”
“I have a proven record as governor of Florida, as a conservative leader and I have a plan” to address the nation’s woes, Bush said.
Carson recited the preamble to the Constitution.
Rubio invoked the Bible, its urging to “let your light shine,” and said “America’s light is dimming . . . after seven years of Barack Obama.”
“The central issue in this race is trust.” Cruz said. “Who do you know will” defeat the Islamic State group, secure American borders and fight abortion laws.
Paul was asked about whether Bill Clinton’s scandal with then-intern Monica Lewinsky were fair game in a campaign in which Hillary Clinton is touting her support among women. Paul cautioned that he wasn’t the Republican raising the issue — it’s Trump — but he made clear he believed the Clintons shouldn’t get a pass on the scandal.
He said if any other boss had an affair with an intern, “they would be fired. They would never be hired again and they probably would be shunned in their community.” He also said the Clintons have taken “millions from regimes in the Middle East that treat women like cattle.”
Earlier, questions on foreign policy frequently led to criticism of Clinton rather than a specific reply.
Christie, for instance, answered a question about whether to deploy American troops in Libya by saying the riots and killings in Benghazi showed why the Democratic front-runner wasn’t qualified to be commander-in-chief.
Rubio said he would immediately tear up the nuclear treaty with Iran and raised his voice to a near shout, saying: “I will take on ISIS.”
Going back to foreign affairs, Carson said he would be the toughest on Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“Vladimir Putin is opportunist and a bully, and we have to face him down,” Carson said, adding he would “face him down” in Ukraine and other areas. He said he would counter any Russian moves in the Middle East.
“Putin is a one-horse country: oil,” Carson said.
Kasich took a question on faith to say the “conservative message is economic growth and opportunity for everyone.” Rather than focus on religion, he said faith meant he wanted to help those “in the shadows” of society.
“In terms of the mentally ill — they have been stepped on too long in our society,” Kasich said, adding that society needed to do more to help the drug-addicted too.
“We all have our interpretations of faith,” Christie said, turning the question to an attack on the Islamic State group, which he said opposed religious liberty.
Rubio said our nation “should hope” its next president is influenced by faith. “I will always allow my faith to influence whatever I do,” he said.
The next segment focused on favorability and electability in a national election.
Cruz, who is reportedly disliked by a number of other Republicans in Congress, faced questions about GOP leaders being worried that if he is at the top of the ticket, the party could stumble. Moderators cited an instance in which Cruz couldn’t find another Republican to co-sponsor a bill he favored and noted that he has no endorsements from fellow GOP senators.
“I am not the candidate of career politicians in Washington,” Cruz said.
Bush then fielded a question that asserted that some polls show he would be among the weakest against Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton.
“I am confident that if I win this nomination, I will go aggressively against her and I will win,” Bush said.
Once again, Rubio took a question and instead focused on Clinton, eliciting laughs when he said if she was elected “her first act might be to pardon herself.”
Christie was grilled about “Bridgegate” — when state officials essentially created gridlock in a New Jersey town whose mayor didn’t endorse Christie. He asserted that three different investigations concluded he did not know of the scheme and said he fired those responsible. He too then shifted to criticizing Clinton.
Immigration continued to create sparks, with rivals taking shots at each other.
Cruz was put on the defensive when Fox News showed several news clips in which the Texas senator supported “immigration reform” and “finding a middle ground that would fix the problem.” He said he has supported some form of “legal status” but stopped short of “citizenship.”
Cruz said he added a series of amendments to the so-called immigration reform bill to “fix” problems with the proposals, but that it didn’t mean that he supported the overall idea of reform.
“I was there and I saw the debate,” Paul countered. “You can’t have it both ways.”
Paul said he is for a legal status.
“Ted was, too,” Paul said.
Cruz sought to turn the focus to Rubio, whom he said was “on the side” of Democratic stalwarts such as Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Harry Reid (D-Nev.)
“This is the lie that Ted’s campaign is built on: He’s the most conservative” and everyone else is a ‘RINO,’ ” or Republican In Name Only, Rubio said.
Christie said the exchange showed why someone from outside the current Washington D.C. power circles is needed. He said a governor can’t rely on “parliamentary tricks” to evade issues.
Rubio found himself on the defensive about his immigration position — some rivals have said he’s moved from opposing a “pathway to citizenship” for immigrants who are in the county illegally and who have been here for years, to supporting it, to opposing it again.
“I never supported blanket amnesty,” Rubio said.
That gave Bush an opening.
“I’m kind of confused because he was the” sponsor of a bill to create a path to citizenship, Bush said. “Then he cut and run because it wasn’t popular among conservatives, I guess.”
Rubio tried to accuse Bush of changing his position.
“You supported a path to citizenship,” Rubio said.
“Still do,” Bush said.
Rubio said the idea of building a wall along the Southern border was unrealistic — a shot at Trump.
But Bush brought it back to his Florida rival, repeating that Rubio “cut and run” on the issue.
Moderators bounced from health care to the federal budget to environment to health care, moving from candidate to candidate.
Cruz said he would repeal Obamacare, expand private health care accounts and “de-link health care from employment” so that insurance would be “portable.”
“I think that’s a much more attractive” plan than the “top-down” approach of Obamacare, Cruz said.
Christie, asked what specific funding he would cut to reduce the budget, said Planned Parenthood. Asked by moderators to pick a bigger revenue item, the New Jersey governor said: “I can’t think of anything bigger than that.”
Rubio vowed that he would eliminate “cap and trade” programs that seek to limit carbon-based emissions in the air, saying they haven’t proved effective.
Again showing himself as the one candidate eager to break from the pack, Paul touted the need for “body cameras” on police and segued into the police-civilian violence in Ferguson, Missouri. He said hindsight showed local authorities pursued “excessive civil fines” against many poor and minority residents.
“I also think the war on drugs has disproportionately affected African-Americans,” Paul said.
Earlier, Kasich tried to show his long history as a Republican stalwart with the experience to deal with foreign policy.
“I was there when Reagan rebuilt the military,” Kasich said. “I was there when the Berlin Wall came down.”
Kasich added that the Islamic State group should be defeated but added: “When that settles down, we should leave. We don’t need to be policeman of the world.”
Christie continued to focus his criticism on Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton. He said her use of a private email server while secretary of state “put America’s secrets at risk for her convenience.”
Carson was asked if the heated rhetoric was exacerbating tensions with Muslims. He said that kind of thinking was “political correctness.”
Staying with foreign policy, Bush was put on the spot when Wallace asked why voters should back his views when his brother, former President George W. Bush, started “two wars” (in Iraq and Afghanistan) that are still ongoing.
Bush answered indirectly, talking up his idea to engage anti-Islamic State group forces in the Middle East.
“The caliphate of ISIS has to be destroyed,” he added.
Paul, again showing his libertarian credentials, criticized rivals for what he said were threats to shut down mosques in the U.S.
“That’s a huge mistake, to close down mosques,” Paul said. He added that Rubio was weaker on border security — and, in a sense, weak on terrorism.
Earlier, Cruz interrupted more than once. His attempts led to an exchange with Fox News’ Chris Wallace, who after a brief back and forth, cut off Cruz and went to another candidate.
Cruz, sounding a bit like Trump from earlier debates, then accused the moderators of trying to get others to criticize him.
“I have noted that the last four questions have been ‘Rand attack Ted. Marco attack Ted,” Cruz said, rattling off other candidates’ names.
“This is a debate,” Wallace countered.
According to National Public Radio, Cruz had more than double the airtime of any rival during the first segment.
Moving to a recurring theme in the GOP debates, each candidate attempted to persuade viewers he would be the toughest on the Islamic State group and terrorists.
Rubio called ISIS the “most dangerous jihadist group” in history” and said it “wants to trigger an apocalyptic, Armageddon showdown.”
Cruz was asked about his earlier promise to “carpet bomb” ISIS-controlled territories until the desert “glows.” Seeming to pull his sentiment back a bit, Cruz this time said he wanted to follow the game plan the U.S. used in the First Gulf War — which involved more precision bombing. He went to say he’d do whatever it takes to increase the size of the American military.
Looking to rally supporters from the libertarian wing of the party, Sen. Rand Paul challenged the idea that Cruz better supported its issues. Paul said Cruz supported the collection of private phone and other data.
Paul had the most vocal supporters at the Des Moines forum, with his crowd cheering loudly his every response.
Kasich, seen by some as the Republican who could best appeal to moderate voters, continued to play up his pitch to unite the country. He said he’s gotten the most newspaper editorial endorsements and said his experience as a governor and a senator shows he’s the one candidate who “knows how to land the plane.”
Carson, in his opening remarks, touting that he was the lone non-politician and said the electorate needed someone who can “think out of the box.”
“We don’t need the same solutions. We need different solutions to save our nation,” Carson said.
As the Republicans began the final debate before the Iowa caucus, the buzz was about who was not on the stage: Trump.
He was the subject of the first question when Cruz was asked what he thought of Trump’s decision to skip the event.
Cruz tried to make a joke about Trump’s penchant for insults, then said the focus should be on him and the other candidates on stage.
But there was no stopping the Trump references in the opening segment.
“I kinda miss Donald Trump. He was a teddy bear to me,” Bush said. He said that other rivals on stage “went into the witness protection program” when they seemed to be the target of Trump insults in earlier debates.
He defended “establishment” Republicans as the best of the party, including his father, former President George H.W. Bush, former President Ronald Reagan and his mom, Barbara Bush.
Sen. Marco Rubio took a question about Trump’s candidacy dividing Republicans, ignored it and instead said the contest was about reversing the agenda of President Barack Obama.