CHARLESTON, S.C., Jan. 13 (UPI) -- The first Republican presidential debate of 2016 featured a field of candidates taking shots at their Democratic counterparts, including scathing criticisms of President Barack Obama's recent State of the Union address.
A paired-down group of seven candidates made it to the main stage this time -- front-runner Donald Trump, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., Dr. Ben Carson, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Ohio Gov. John Kasich.
Candidates started out of the gate with questions that compelled them to react to the Obama's annual speech before Congress.
Cruz criticized Obama's assessment that the economy was strong. Kasich called for further tax cuts on corporations, and Christie called the State of the Union "story time."
Shifting to foreign policy, Christie and Bush called for rebuilding the U.S. military. All candidates referred to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in their early answers, with Bush calling her a "national security mess." Rubio joined in, calling her "disqualified from being president of the United States," and accused her of lying to the families of the victims of the terrorist attack on the American embassy in Benghazi, Libya.
Carson accused the Obama administration of not talking the Islamic State and other foreign terrorists seriously enough.
Trump doubled down on earlier calls to halt the resettlement of refugees in the United States, using the San Bernardino, Calif., shooting as an example of what could happen if resettlement continues.
Cruz was made to answer for failing to disclose a nearly $1 million loan from Goldman Sachs during his Senate bid. He responded by criticizing The New York Times, which first reported the story, calling it a "hit piece" and saying he simply made an paperwork error.
Cruz was later asked to answer to recent concerns regarding his citizenship. Cruz was born in Canada, but is a U.S. citizen. Cruz took a rare jab at Trump, suggesting the renewed concern over Cruz's citizenship was due to Cruz closing in on Trump in some polls. Cruz turned the tables, saying that because Trump's mother was born in Scotland, he would theoretically be disqualified from running for president.
Trump responded by citing polls in his favor over boos from the audience. He went on to explain that if he won the Republican nomination and he chose Cruz as his running mate, he could face a lawsuit. Trump later admitted he raised the issue because Cruz "stands a chance."
"I'm not going to get legal advice from Donald Trump," Cruz responded. During the debate, Bloomberg News reported that a lawsuit was filed by a Texas lawyer against Cruz seeking a ruling on whether or not Cruz is qualified to serve as president.
Trump was then asked to respond to South Carolina Gov. Nikk Haley's GOP response after the State of the Union. Haley seemingly targeted Trump in her speech with the line: "During anxious times, it can be tempting to follow the siren call of the angriest voices."
Trump said he was proud to be "angry" and favorably called out Haley who was sitting in the audience.
Rubio continued previous attacks against Christie, alleging he donated to Planned Parenthood, supports gun control and supports Common Core. Christie denied all the allegations, reiterating his claim that Rubio once called Christie a "conservative reformer."
Bush called for candidates to stop criticizing each other, saying: "Every person here is better than Hillary Clinton."
Carson echoed, telling the others on the stage to "look at the big picture."
Kasich was asked to weigh in on the candidacy of Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. He said Republicans would win every state if Sanders' won the Democratic presidential nomination.
"I know Bernie and I can promise you he won't be president of the United States," he said
Carson was asked whether or not Bill Clinton's past affairs were "fair game" in a presidential campaign. Carson asked: "Is this America anymore?" and gave a brief speech about America's lack of "values and principles."
On gun control, Bush used the 2014 shooting at a Charleston church to explain his disagreement with Obama's recent executive actions. Dylan Roof, the shooter in South Carolina, was able to pass a background check due to a flaw in the system. Bush claimed the solution was not new laws, but enforcing laws already on the books, saying the FBI failed.
Rubio said that if Obama could confiscate guns from citizens, he would.
"Criminals don't get their guns from a gun show," Rubio said. "[The Islamic State] does not get their guns from a gun show."
Christie was asked about his record of signing several laws to regulate guns as governor of New Jersey. Christie said the difference between he and Obama was that Christie worked with the state legislature to pass laws.
"That's not a democracy, that's a dictatorship," he said. "This guy is a petulant child, that's what he is."
Christie then spoke directly to Obama, who Christie said he hoped was watching.
"We're not against you, we're against your policies," Christie said. "We are gonna kick your rear end out of the White House this fall," he said of the term-limited president.
Cruz said every candidate will say that they support the second amendment: "Unless you are clinically insane, that's what you say in a primary," he said, saying he had the best record of defending gun owners.
Cruz got a follow-up question about his recent statement that Trump was the product of "New York values." Cruz elaborated saying New Yorkers were pro-abortion, pro-same sex marriage and socially progressive. Cruz targeted Trump, saying: "Not a lot of conservatives come out of Manhattan." The statement echoed Trump's earlier statement that "not a lot of Evangelicals come out of Cuba," referring to Cruz.
Trump called the statement "very insulting," citing the post-Sept. 11 cleanup as an example of the world rallying around New York.
Shifting to foreign policy, candidates were asked about approaches to the IS -- also identified as Daesh, ISIS and ISIL. Carson provided a hard-to-follow strategy, which included bombing the IS headquarters in Raqqa, Syria. Christie called for the downfall of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Trump, when asked if he would reconsider his plan to ban Muslims from entering the United States, replied with a simple "no." He went on to decry political correctness, and reminded the audience that he has many Muslim friends who have allegedly "thanked" him for the proposed ban.
Bush pleaded for Trump to reconsider his stance. When moderators asked Bush whether or not those who support Trump are similarly "unhinged" as Bush called Trump, Bush responded saying "absolutely not" and renewing pleas to reconsider.
Candidates were asked whether or not they would pause Muslim immigration to the United States. Kasich responded by advocating for a pause on resettling Syrian refugees. Christie agreed. Rubio said the issue was Obama's fault for not taking the Islamic State seriously enough. Cruz pushed for the passage of legislation to revoke American citizenship from radicalized Americans, and ban resettlement of refugees from countries where the Islamic State is active. Carson renewed calls for resettling Syrian refugees in Syria. Bush agreed with Carson, also advocating for a stronger military response in Syria.
Rubio was asked about his attempt at immigration reform. He responded by pivoting to vowing not to allow the Islamic State to infiltrate the United States. Cruz jumped in, carrying out a familiar strategy of bashing Rubio on immigration reform, accusing him of offering "amnesty." Rubio shot back accusing Cruz of changing his votes due to "political calculation."
Trump accused the The New York Times of mischaracterizing his proposal for a 45 percent tariff on Chinese exports. Trump went on to slam China for their economic policy. Bush called Trump's policies impractical, which led to a tussle between the two, during which Trump called Bush "weak."
Questions on taxes and infrastructure followed. Christie called for changing the tax code to take pressure off of American corporations. Carson continued to push his plan for a flat tax. Rubio and Cruz traded punches on each other's tax policies. Cruz called for eliminating payroll taxes and inheritance taxes.
"My tax plan allows you to fill out your tax return on a post card so we can abolish the IRS," Cruz said.
Christie interrupted to try to redirect the conversation, talking over Rubio, saying: "You already had your chance, you blew it."
Asked whether he would put his assets in a blind trust if he were to be elected president, Trump said "If I become president, I couldn't care less about my company."
Christie railed against sanctuary cities -- cities that opt not to fund federal immigration efforts -- and the decriminalization of marijuana, saying he would appoint an attorney general that would enforce the law.
Before moderators could move onto their next question, cheers of "we want Rand" briefly broke out from a section of the audience supporting Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.
The stage was less crowded this time around thanks to more stringent qualification requirements. Candidates had to meet one of three criteria by Jan. 11:
-- They must have placed in the top six in an average of the five most recent polls
--They must have placed in the top five in an average of five recent Iowa polls
-- Or they must have placed in the top five in an average of the five most recent New Hampshire polls
These requirements squeezed Paul off of the main stage. He had previously refused to participate in an undercard debate. Paul instead spent the evening hosting a rally at the Twitter headquarters and taking questions from people on Twitter and Periscope.
Just days away the first Democratic presidential debate of 2016 will take place nearby in Charleston, S.C. This comes as the race becomes more heated between front-runner former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.