(L-R) George Pataki, Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum and Lindsey Graham gather onstage for a photo-op prior for first tier of a two-tiered fifth Republican Party presidential candidates' debate at the Venetian Hotel & Casino on December 15, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Photo by Jim Ruymen/UPI | License Photo
LAS VEGAS, Dec. 15 (UPI) -- The final GOP presidential debate of 2015 kicked off in Las Vegas Tuesday evening, starting with the undercard debate featuring the four lowest-polling GOP presidential hopefuls.
Focused on terrorism and national security, the CNN-hosted debate was in many ways the last gasp for the campaigns of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, former New York Gov. George Pataki, former Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., and Sen. Lindsey Graham R-S.C. trying to reach voters with a month an a half before the first Republican primary in Iowa on Feb. 1.
Though on a stage by themselves, the four candidates spent their time fighting to get out of Donald Trump's long shadow.
"You may think this makes us safe, but it doesn't," Graham responded to Wolf Blitzer, saying Trump's proposed ban on all Muslims entering the country would only help the Islamic State. "ISIL would be dancing in the streets, they just don't believe in dancing."
Graham also tried to speak directly to Middle Eastern leaders friendly to the United States, saying: "I am sorry, [Trump] does not represent us." But Graham said he would still support Trump reluctantly if he were the eventual party nominee.
Pataki called Trump's proposed ban "unamerican, unconstitutional and wrong"
Santorum said the ban referred only to Syrian refugees and jihadists. "Not all Muslims are jihadists, but the reality is that all jihadists are Muslims."
"Muslims have died by the thousands fighting this ideology," Graham responded, saying the rhetoric alienated the United States' allies in the Middle East.
"[Trump] has touched a nerve because people are angry and afraid." Huckabee said, then accused the Obama administration of refusing to acknowledge the threat of the Islamic State.
But it was Graham through the 90-minute debate that distanced himself the most from the other candidates, calling for both a major military commitment in Syria and parts of the Middle East where necessary, but also a greater respect for the rule of law.
He thanked Muslim members of the armed services: "You are not the enemy, your religion is not the enemy," but also called for 10,000 troops on the ground to "kill every one of these bastards we can find."
He also called for U.S. troops to remain on the ground in Syria for as long as it takes to stabilize the region. "I am seeking victory, folks, not containment," he said.
He also slammed Trump's call for the execution of U.S. soldier and accused deserter, Bowe Bergdahl. Graham supported Bergdahl getting a fair trial and said it's bad for morale if a commander-in-chief calls for the denial of due process.
Here are a few other highlights from Tuesday's under card debate:
Huckabee called for intelligence agents to sit in on religious services in mosques. "If Islam is as wonderful and peaceful as its adherents say, shouldn't they be begging us [to come and listen]?"
Santorum said he would establish a no-fly zone over Syria, and if he was forced to shoot down a Russian plane, he does not think it would lead to war with Russia.
"Bullies, when you stand up to them, they back down," Pataki said, echoing a call for a no-fly zone.
"The man is a tyrant, he's killed lots of people but he wasn't killing Americans," Huckabee said about potentially keeping Bashar al-Assad in in power in Syria.
"I don't care if you're a man or a woman, I care if you're good." Pataki said in support of new Pentagon policy allowing women to serve in combat positions in the military.
"I don't want someone to lecture me about being a Christian when I don't want to accept a possible terrorist in my back yard," Huckabee said about Syrian refugees and the recent attempt to tighten restrictions in the visa-waiver program.