Republicans trade punches on national security on debate stage

By Ann Marie Awad  |  Updated Dec. 16, 2015 at 6:21 AM
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LAS VEGAS, Dec. 15 (UPI) -- Nine candidates for the Republican presidential nomination sparred over terrorism and national security in the last debate of 2015.

The debate was the fifth televised debate for the GOP candidates so far this year, this one focusing on terrorism and national security. It was their last opportunity to appeal to voters before the Iowa primary on Feb. 1. The debate was also broadcast on the Armed Forces Network.

Salem Radio Network host Hugh Hewitt and CNN chief political correspondent Dana Bash moderated along with Wolf Blitzer, host of CNN's Situation Room.

Much of the night was dominated by recent controversial remarks by front-runner Donald Trump, including his proposal to ban all Muslims from entering the United States or to shut down parts of the Internet to curb Islamic State recruitment. Many candidates were asked for their input on these proposals, but rarely was Trump himself asked.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush was asked to elaborate on earlier remarks he had made, calling Trump "unhinged." Bush did so by calling Trump a "chaos candidate" who would go on to be a "chaos president." That served as the opening blow in a rivalry between the two that would carry through the night.

Trump shot back saying Bush's campaign was a failure before the debate rolled on. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said the majority of Republicans who support Trump's ban do so because President Barack Obama has failed to keep America safe.

As he did in previous debates, Trump took the moderators to task for the format of the debate.

He accused CNN of setting Bush up with an attack strategy by asking him to comment on Trump's policies, and also slammed the moderators for asking similar questions of the candidates in the earlier undercard debate.

"It's not CNN, America's watching you," Hewitt responded, talking over Trump.

A showdown between Trump and Cruz was expected, based on remarks Cruz made during a private fundraiser that expressed concern about Trump's "judgment." Although the candidates were pitted against each other on various issues, things remained friendly between the two. Cruz was even asked by Bash about the remarks, and he punted, saying that the American people must choose who has the best judgement.

When the candidates weren't being asked to comment on Trump's policies, they coalesced around the situation on the ground in Syria. More hawkish candidates such as Ohio Gov. John Kasich, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and Trump rooted for U.S. troops on the ground in Syria. Trump, along with Carly Fiorina, Rubio, Carson and Kasich advocated for increased surveillance programs to target terrorists on American soil.

On the proposal to ban Muslims from the United States

Trump opened the debate by discussing his proposed ban on Muslim immigration, as well as his proposal to build a wall along the southern border of the United States. When asked whether his foreign policy relied on isolating America from much of the world, Trump responded: "We're not talking about isolation, we're talking about security."

Bush came out against the notion, joining Rubio and Cruz. Bush said the ban was not a "serious proposal." Cruz blamed Obama for refusing to use the phrase "radical Islamic terrorism" and said because of that, he understood why Trump made the proposal. Rubio took a similar stance, blaming Obama for not keeping Americans safe, and saying his televised address following the San Bernardino, Calif., attacks "made things worse."

On using technology to fight terror

Fiorina repeatedly bemoaned how outdated the Patriot Act was, saying it hasn't caught up to the age of smartphones. She said if elected, the private sector would play a role in fighting terrorism.

Rubio said it was a mistake to do away with the NSA's bulk metadata collection program, which Congress did not renew by the Nov. 28 expiration date. He also slammed Cruz for voting for the USA Freedom Act, which modified portions of the Patriot Act. Rubio said the failure to include bulk data collection and other surveillance measures took away valuable tools from the intelligence community.

Bush also agreed that the NSA should have increased powers. Fiorina said the social media accounts of suspected terrorists should also be monitored, in addition to cell phones, which she says she'll work with the private sector to do.

Paul commented on Trump's proposal to "close up the Internet" in order to stop ISIS from recruiting. Trump scoffed as Paul told the audience that the proposal would require doing away with the First Amendment. Appealing to Trump's supporters, Paul asked: "Do you believe in the Constitution?"

Trump responded that he didn't mean close up the whole Internet, just to target Syria and Iraq, which was met with a mixture of boos and cheers. Trump ripped the audience for booing, which was met with applause.

On regime change

Cruz slammed regime change in Libya, Iraq and Egypt, blaming each on the Obama administration.

"I believe in America-first foreign policy," he said, cautioning against deposing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. "If we topple Assad, the result will be ISIS will take over Syria."

Carson aligned with Cruz, saying foreign policy in the Middle East needed to focus on American interests first and foremost.

Rubio was asked about his support for U.S. intervention in Libya to eventually depose Moammar Gaddafi. He responded that Gadhafi was responsible for American deaths, and that when it came to any anti-American dictator, "if they go, I will not shed a tear."

Trump, on the other hand, said "the Middle East is totally destabilized," saying that previous U.S. involvement in regime change has not gained the country anything. Instead, he said the money spent on such involvement would have been better invested domestically.

"That's exactly what President Obama said," Fiorina shot back, before voicing her support for toppling Assad.

Bush was asked if he still thinks getting rid of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was a good idea. He said yes, while Paul said the situation became more untenable after Hussein was removed from power.

"We have to decide whether regime change is a good idea. It has not worked," he said. "You get chaos. They allow terrorism to rise out of that chaos."

The crowd erupted in cheers.

On Russian President Vladimir Putin

Fiorina reiterated her stance that she would not speak to Putin upon taking office until a no-fly zone is established over Syria, until a new nuclear deal is re-negotiated with Iran and missile defenses are re-fortified in Poland.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said he would talk to to Putin to tell him there would be no Russain planes flying over Syria, and he would not hesitate to shoot down a Russian plane. Christie's tone throughout the night was tough as he weathered his first debate on the main stage after polling high enough to escape the undercard debate.

Bush said he was more qualified than Trump to deal with Putin because: "I know what I don't know," saying he'll seek advice from qualified advisors. "If I'm president, I'll be a commander in chief, not an agitator in chief," he said.

Trump responded by accusing CNN of being hard on him, prompting several of the candidates to jump in and speak over each other.

On immigration

Rubio and Cruz traded barbs over their immigration plans. Rubio still supports the path to citizenship enshrined in the immigration reform bill he championed in 2013. Cruz responded by calling it "amnesty," saying the bill did not do enough to secure the border.

Rubio accused Cruz of agreeing with him more than he let on. "I understand that Marco wants to raise confusion." Cruz shot back, "it is not accurate what he just said."

Cruz went on, over Rubio's attempts to interject: "I have never supported legalization and I never intend to support legalization."

Fiorina jumped in as the two bickered, saying "This is why our nation is fed up with the political class."

Once the dust settled, Trump reiterated his plan to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

On Syrian refugees

Christie and Kasich both raised red flags about the ability to vet Syrian refugees. Trump said he would send back refugees that had already been resettled in the United States. Paul said he had not taken a position on sending refugees back, but did call for refugees to be resettled in the Middle East.

Carson, citing his recent visit to a refugee camp in Jordan, said refugee camps could be a long-term solution if the United States arms Kurdish soldiers to protect them.

On Asia

Fiorina said China needed to be an ally with the United States in order to take on North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. First, though, the United States would need to retaliate against China for cyberattacks earlier this year, which Fiorina said will let the Chinese know the United States is serious. She also called to join forces with South Korea, Australia and the Philippines to keep North Korea in check.

Christie echoed calls for retaliatory attacks against the Chinese, saying the United States should "embarrass" the Chinese government. Bush agreed, saying the Obama administration has been "lax" pointing to Clinton's use of a private email server during her time at the State Department.

On nuclear priorities

Hewitt asked Trump which part of the nuclear triad was his priority. The triad refers to silos, airplanes and subs with the capability to launch nuclear missiles. Trump could not name one of the three components when Hewitt pressed him.

Rubio explained the triad to those watching the debate.

On leaving the party

Trump and Carson were both called to account for recent threats to leave the GOP and run as third party candidates. Trump offered no hesitation, saying he wasn't considering it, and thanked his rivals for the chance to campaign. Carson agreed.

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