A raucous crowd got what it wanted from the Republican presidential candidates Thursday night: lots of fireworks, and plenty of red meat.
Real estate investor Donald Trump traded blow for blow with his nearest rival, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, while Republicans further down in the polls were also combative just two weeks before the 2016 presidential primary season begins.
The prime-time debate in Charleston, South Carolina, began with Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus promising that the party would support whichever candidate won the nomination.
The Fox Business Network debate that followed put his words to the test, as the two leading candidates pummeled one another over birthright citizenship and “New York values.”
Cruz kicked off the debate by immediately shifting focus from jobs and the economy to images distributed by Iranian media showing U.S. Navy sailors being detained for one day after their boats entered Iranian waters.
Cruz called the images “heartbreaking,” and promised: “If I am elected president, no service man or woman will be forced to be on their knees, and any nation that captures our fighting men will feel the full force and fury of the United States of America.”
In quick succession, the candidates slammed President Obama’s national security and foreign policy positions, reserving special venom for Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton.
Clinton is “disqualified” from serving as commander-in-chief, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio charged, because of allegations that she mishandled classified information on her private email server and made false statements in the wake of the terrorist attack on the American embassy in Benghazi.
Cruz came in for questioning about a New York Times report that he failed to disclose nearly $1 million in loans from Citibank and Goldman Sachs, where his wife, Heidi, is currently on leave from her job as an investment manager.
A chuckling Cruz called the article a “hit piece in The New York Times” and said the entire incident was little more than a “paperwork error.” If that's the best The Times could do to derail his candidacy, Cruz said, “they better go back to the well.”
The reaction to this exchange online was quick. Republican Party of Virginia Chairman John Whitbeck tweeted: “I think the Ted Cruz loan controversy is dead after that answer.”
To a few groans from the audience, debate moderator Neil Cavuto steered the discussion toward Donald Trump’s questioning of Cruz’s citizenship status.
In response, Cruz again chuckled, and said: “I’m glad we’re focusing on the important topics of the evening.”
Cruz then brought Trump into the debate, suggesting Trump is “dismayed” that his poll numbers are falling in Iowa, insinuating that this is the real reason why Trump has been talking about the issue in recent days.
Even Trump, whose mother was born in Scotland, wouldn’t be able to serve as president under some of the more extreme interpretations of citizenship law, Cruz said.
Trump fired back, to scattered jeers from the crowd, saying that his polls have him beating Cruz. “This isn’t me saying it,” Trump said. “I don’t care. I think I’m going to win fair and square.”
Trump suggested that if he were to win the Republican nomination and tap Cruz as his running mate, “the Democrats sue because we can’t take him along for the ride. I don’t like that.”
When Cavuto asked why Trump was bringing up the issue now, just days ahead of the Iowa caucus, Trump responded: “Because now, [Cruz] is going a little bit better.”
Trump said Cruz should go to court and get a declaratory judgment to clear up any citizenship questions. "I’m not going to be taking legal advice from Donald Trump,” Cruz retorted.
Cruz said he might pick Trump as his running mate, “in case things don’t work out.”
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio called the exchange between the two men “an episode of Court TV” and tried to steer the debate back to a focus on Barack Obama.
Another potential flash point occurred when moderator Maria Bartiromo asked about South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley’s State of the Union response, in which the Governor took aim at “the siren call of the angriest voices” in the nation - a reference to Trump's runaway lead in the GOP field.
Trump brushed off the controversy, calling Haley “a close friend.”
“But she did say there was anger,” Trump added. “I’m very angry because our country is being run horribly and I will gladly accept the mantle of anger.”
A third flash point was Cruz’s criticism of what he derisively called Trump’s “New York values."
“Not too many years ago, Donald did an interview with Tim Russert. And in that interview, he explained his views on a whole host of issues that were very, very different from the views he’s describing now,” Cruz said. “Not a lot of conservatives come out of Manhattan. I’m just saying.”
Trump responded calmly, referring to the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, when the World Trade Center was destroyed.
“Everybody in the world watched, and everybody in the world loved New York and loved New Yorkers,” Trump said. “And I have to tell you, that was a very insulting statement that Ted made.”
After the debate, Priebus, the RNC chairman, issued a press release saying the “unprecedented enthusiasm surrounding our debates reflects America’s eagerness to put a Republican president back in the White House.”