WASHINGTON (MEDIA GENERAL) – Donald Trump and Ted Cruz were the main – acrimonious – attraction at Thursday night’s GOP debate in South Carolina. Within 30 minutes, the gloves hit the floor.
Republican front-runners Cruz and Trump tossed aside their past debate detente, opting to hash out GOP party squabbles in full view of millions. Onstage fireworks aren’t much of a surprise this close to the Iowa caucuses – because it’s do or die.
Fox Business Network anchor Lou Dobbs predicted a “cage match,” and the candidates delivered.
“You have a big lawsuit hanging over your head … who the hell knows if you can even serve in office?” exclaimed Trump, referring to his own repeated questioning of the Texas senator’s Canadian birth and possible ineligibility to become president.
Trump personally promised not to bring a lawsuit, but warned Cruz will certainly face a future Democratic legal challenge. He admonished his closest competitor saying, “You can’t do that to the [Republican] Party.”
Some of the crowd loved Trump’s lines; others loudly booed. Sen. Cruz, a deft Harvard-educated debater, came prepared.
“Donald J. Trump would be disqualified,” Cruz argued, based on some of the real estate magnate’s own “birther theories.” Furthermore, Cruz argued that several other GOP candidates would be disqualified from serving as president. Both of their parents weren’t born in the United States, as required by certain birther arguments.
Cruz remains the top-polling Republican in Iowa, but saw his front-runner status slip by six points in this week’s Bloomberg / Des Moines Register poll, coinciding with Trump’s birther campaign.
FBN host Maria Bartiromo queried the southern senator about another lingering issue: Cruz receiving a million-dollar loan from his wife’s employer Goldman Sachs to fund his upstart Senate campaign, but never properly reporting it to the Federal Election Commission.
Cruz brushed off the question as relying on a New York Times “hit piece,” dinging Bartiromo for even broaching the issue.
A quicker back-and-forth addressed Cruz’s assertion that Trump had “New York values.” Cruz said that his statement referenced a vintage Trump interview in which the billionaire said his thinking “is what we believe in New York.” Trump countered that New York has plenty of “loving people,” invoking the September 11th attacks and calling Cruz’s comments “very insulting.”
Candidates occupying the lower rungs of Republicans’ packed 2016 presidential field also fought to score points.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio traded barbs over authenticity. Ohio Gov. John Kasich emphasized his record as a fiscally conservative budget balancer. Jeb Bush bungled several canned talking points – but struck a steady, sincere tone when speaking about the 2015 racially-motivated mass shooting in a Charleston church.
Republicans have just one more debate to make final impressions on Iowans before they cast 2016’s first votes on February 1st .
Fox News’ Megyn Kelly, Chris Wallace and Bret Baier will moderate a final pre-caucus GOP forum on January 28 in Des Moines, Iowa.
Follow Chance Seales on Twitter: @ChanceSeales