The seven top Republican presidential candidates met for the sixth primary debate of the 2016 cycle on Thursday night, just 17 days before the Iowa caucuses kick off the nominating contests.
The candidates arrived in North Charleston, South Carolina under much of the same circumstances they faced prior to their debate last month in Las Vegas, with businessman Donald Trump decisively leading the polls, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas holding steady in second place and the party's establishment struggling to coalesce behind a clear alternative to the Trump/Cruz wing of the GOP.
Thursday night's debate came amid recent spats over the Canadian-born Cruz's "natural-born" citizenship and eligibility to serve as president, and with the party still bitterly divided over issues like immigration, the issue that catapulted Trump to front-runner status.
We'll be tallying the debate's most essential moments below.
1. Cruz opened by hitting Obama on Iran.
Cruz got the first question, and opened with an attack on President Barack Obama over the brief Iranian detention this week of 10 American sailors who had ventured into Iranian waters.
"Today many of us picked up our newspapers ... to see the sight of 10 American sailors on their knees with their hands on their head," Cruz said. "In that State of the Union, President Obama didn't so much as mention the 10 sailors that had been captured by Iran. President Obama is preparing to send $100 billion or more to the Ayatollah Khomeini."
"I will tell you, it was heart-breaking, but the good news is the next commander-in-chief is standing on this stage," Cruz said.
Closing on a hawkish note, Cruz added, "And I give you my word, if I am elected president no serviceman or servicewoman will be forced to be on their knees and any nation that captures our fighting men and women will feel the full force and fury of the United States of America." — Luke Brinker
2. Jeb Bush sharpened his attacks on Hillary Clinton.
Erstwhile frontrunner Jeb Bush went aggressively after Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, dinging her foreign policy record and suggesting her email scandal could lead to a criminal prosecution.
"To be honest with you Hillary Clinton would be a national security disaster. Think about it: she wants to continue down the path of Iran, Benghazi, Russian reset, Dodd-Frank, all the things that have gone wrong in this country," Bush said. "She would be a national security mess, and that is wrong. You know what? Here's the problem. If she gets elected she is under investigation with the FBI right now. If she gets elected, her first 100 days, instead of setting agenda she might be going back and forth between the White House and the courthouse. We need to stop that." — Luke Brinker
3. Rubio slammed Clinton as "disqualified" for the presidency.
Rubio came out of the gates blazing, using his opening words to describe Clinton as entirely unqualified for a White House run.
"[Clinton] wouldn't just be a disaster. Hillary Clinton is disqualified from being commander-in-chief of the United States," Rubio said to roaring applause. "Someone who cannot handle intelligence information appropriately cannot be commander-in-chief, and someone who lies to the families of those four victims in Benghazi can never be president of the United States."
Rubio went on to slam Obama's foreign policy agenda as a concession to ISIS, and promised to ramp up the war on terror dramatically, including giving a "one-way ticket to Guantanamo" to any captured terrorists abroad. — Zeeshan Aleem
4. Cruz defended himself against the New York Times.
Asked by moderator Maria Bartiromo about a New York Times report Wednesday night that Cruz failed to properly disclose a Goldman Sachs loan to his 2012 Senate bid, the senator slammed the Gray Lady.
"You know, the nice thing about the mainstream media, they don't hide their views," Cruz said. "The New York Times a few weeks back had a columnist who wrote a column saying anybody but Cruz. That same columnist wrote a column comparing me to an evil, demonic spirit from the movie It Follows, that I'm apparently going from body to body possessing people. So, you know, the New York Times and I don't exactly have the warmest of relationships."
"Now, in terms of their really stunning hit piece, what they mentioned is when I was running for Senate, unlike Hillary Clinton, I don't have masses of money in the bank, hundreds of millions of dollars," he went on. "When I was running for Senate, just about every lobbyist, just about all the establishment opposed me in the Senate race in Texas. And my opponent in that race was worth over $200 million. He put a $25 million check up from his own pocket to fund that campaign. And my wife Heidi and I, we ended up investing everything we owned. We took a loan against our assets to invest it in that campaign to defend ourselves against those attacks." — Luke Brinker
5. Defending his questioning of Cruz's eligibility to serve as president, Trump encountered fierce boos from the crowd.
"Laurence Tribe and numerous from Harvard said there is a serious question as to whether or not Ted can do this, okay? There are other attorneys that feel, and very, very fine constitutional attorneys, that feel that because he was not born on the land, he cannot run for office," Trump said. "Here's the problem. We're running, we're running. He does great. I win. I choose him as my vice presidential candidate and the Democrats sue, because we can't take him along for the ride. I don't like that."
"OK? The fact is, and if, for some reason he beats the rest of the field, he beats the rest of the field who is — see, they don't like that. They don't like that," Trump said, referring to the crowd's booing. "They don't like that he beats the rest of the field because they want me. If, for some reason, Neil, he beats the rest of the field, I already know the Democrats are going to be bringing a suit. You have a big lawsuit over your head while you're running and if you become the nominee, who the hell knows if you can even serve in office. So you should go out and get a declaratory judgment. Let the courts decide." — Luke Brinker
6. Trump said he will "gladly accept the mantle of anger."
When asked how he felt about being called out by South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley in her response to the State of the Union, during which she warned against "the siren call of the angriest voices" in the GOP, Trump chose not to defend himself, but to embrace her characterization.
"I'm very angry because our country is being run horribly and I will gladly accept the mantle of anger," Trump said defiantly. "Our military is a disaster. Our health care is a horror show ... Yes, I am angry. and I won't be angry when we fix it but until we fix it, I'm very, very angry ... I'm angry because our country is a mess." — Zeeshan Aleem
7. Cruz hit Trump again for "New York values."
Elaborating on a recent attack on Trump, Cruz defended his use of the phrase "New York values" under questioning from Bartiromo.
"You're from New York? You might not [know what 'New York values' means]," Cruz said. "But I promise you, in the state of South Carolina, they do. And listen, there are many, many wonderful, wonderful working men and women in the state of New York. But everyone understands that the values in New York City are socially liberal or pro-abortion or pro-gay marriage, focus around money and the media."
Trump fired back, saying Cruz's jabs at New York were "insulting" given the hit the city took in the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks. — Luke Brinker
8. Cruz warned that Clinton wants to confiscate everyone's guns.
When asked what his plan was for cracking down on mass shootings and an alleged uptick in violent crime, Cruz made it clear that he believed gun control was not the answer, and that Democrats' gun control measures were merely a guise for eventually eradicating Americans' gun rights.
"[Obama] appointed Eric Holder as attorney general, he viewed his mission as brainwashing the American people against guns," Cruz said.
The Texas senator then went after Clinton.
"Hillary Clinton said she agrees with the dissenters, the Supreme Court dissenters in the Heller case. There were four dissenters and they said they believe the Second Amendment protects no individual right to protect and bear arms whatsoever," Cruz said. "Which means if their view prevailed and the next president gets one, two, three, maybe four Supreme Court justices, the court will rule that not a single person in the room has any right under the Second Amendment and the government can confiscate your guns." — Zeeshan Aleem
9. Bush slammed Trump for anti-Muslim policy.
When Trump was asked if he had any second thoughts about his polarizing plan to temporarily ban the immigration of Muslims into the country, he had a single-word answer: "No." Citing the alleged approval of his proposal from some of his "great Muslim friends" and impatience for a culture of "political correctness," the real estate magnate defended a temporary ban as the surest way to prevent the U.S. from being "laughed at all over the world."
As he has in the past, Bush voiced forceful disagreement.
"Donald, I hope you reconsider this, because this policy is a policy that makes it impossible to build the coalition necessary to take out ISIS," Bush said. "The Kurds are our strongest allies — they're Muslim — you're not going to allow them to come to our country? The other Arab countries have a role in this, we can't be the world's policeman, we can't do it unilaterally."
Bush, who has advocated for a controversial religious test for refugees coming into the U.S., said that a blanket ban on Muslims was one step too far.
"We don't have to have refugees come to the country, but all Muslims, seriously?" Bush said. "What kind of signal does that send to the rest of the world that the United States is a serious player in creating peace?" — Zeeshan Aleem
10. Christie to Rubio: "You blew it, Marco."
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie went after Rubio hard, accusing the Floridian of flubbing his answer on the national debate.
"There was a question on entitlements, the reason — you had your chance, and you blew it, Marco," Christie said, as Rubio attempted to jump in. "Here is the thing. The reason why that no one wants to answer entitlements because it is hard, a hard problem." The New Jersey governor touted his plan to reform entitlement programs, a centerpiece of his campaign since he launched.
Christie added that Clinton is "one or two more poll drops down" against Sanders "from moving further left than she has already moves" on economic issues. — Luke Brinker
11. Carson said "the evil government" is to blame for society's ill, "not the evil rich people."
When Carson was asked how he would deal with the the problem of corporations evading their financial responsibilities through offshore tax havens, Ben Carson responded with a description of his ambition to create a flat tax system.
"I would suggest a fair tax system, that is what we have proposed. A flat tax, for everyone, no exemptions, no deductions, no shelters," Carson said.
While creating a flat tax system doesn't address the question of enforcing tax evasion, a practice that the super rich have been using to save themselves tens of trillions for decades, it did allow Carson to score points for attacking government bureaucracy. And that bureaucracy, not inequality, is the true culprit behind America's ills, according to him.
"Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton will say, 'it is the evil rich people!'" Carson said. "It is not the evil rich people, it is the evil government that is putting these regulations on us." — Zeeshan Aleem
12. Protesters briefly interrupted the debate, shouting "We want Rand!"
Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.) was excluded from the main stage of the debate, and chose to skip the undercard debate in protest. Several people shouted their support while Cavuto was asking a question, then abruptly stopped:
13. Rubio finally managed to lay a punch on Cruz.
In one of his most forceful attacks on Cruz to date, Rubio slammed Cruz as a cynical opportunist, not the principled conservative he purports to be.
"Ted Cruz, you used to say you supported doubling the number of green cards, now you say you're against it. You used to support 500% increase in the number of guest workers, now against it. You used to support legalizing people here illegally. now against it. You used to say you were in favor of birthright citizenship. Now you are against it," Rubio said.
Not ready to relent, Rubio continued: "Not just on immigration: you used to support [fast-track trade authority], now you are against it. I saw you on the senate floor flip your vote on crop insurance because they told you it would help you in Iowa. And last week we saw you flip the vote on Iowa for the same reason. That is not consistent conservatism. That is political calculation. When I am president, I will work to keep this country safe,
Rubio also hammered Cruz's national security record, saying that unlike Cruz, he'd never call NSA leaker Edward Snowden a "public servant" and blasting Cruz for voting with Paul and Sanders against surveillance measures.
Cruz was ham-handed in his response, bizarrely saying that "at least half" of Rubio's attacks were untrue. — Luke Brinker