LAS VEGAS — The Republican presidential candidates, gathering for the first time since a spate of foreign and domestic terror attacks, dueled Tuesday night over who could best safeguard the homeland and project the most muscular American stance abroad.
While much of the sharpest criticism keyed on President Obama, the debate underscored fissures within the GOP over domestic surveillance, regime change in nations led by dictators, and immigration — all animating issues for both the party’s conservative base and its more moderate establishment.
With real estate magnate Donald Trump continuing to enjoy a lead in the polls, the two-hour session featured some challengers taking him on directly, while others — such as US Senators Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida — battled for position as the chief alternative.
The leading candidates spent large parts of the final GOP debate of 2015 arguing for a more robust and aggressive effort to combat terrorism. And many of the White House hopefuls sounded similar critiques of a nation they see enfeebled by Obama and their leading Democratic rival, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton.
“The men and women on this stage, every one of us, is better prepared to keep our nation safe than is Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton,” said Cruz, who has been climbing in polls.
Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, seeing some momentum of his own in the New Hampshire primary, called Obama a “feckless weakling” on foreign policy.
Rubio pointed to the recent terrorist attack in California, arguing that Obama had failed in the commander in chief’s central duty.
“The president has left us unsafe,” Rubio said.
Still, some party elements lean toward a more isolationist stance.
Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, the candidate most leery of American interventionism, warned other candidates that their embrace of more powerful security tools could endanger the personal rights of all Americans.
He said America must use its military power judiciously. “Regime change hasn’t won,’’ he said. “Toppling secular dictators in the Middle East has only led to chaos and the rise of radical Islam.”
The field’s front-runner, Trump, and one of its most underperforming candidates, former Florida governor Jeb Bush, engaged in a testy exchange over Trump’s much-criticized proposal to ban Muslims from entering the country. Bush called Trump a “chaos candidate,” while Trump sniped that Bush was trying to revive his failing candidacy.
Trump and Bush squabbled again later in the debate, when Bush sought to label Trump a latecomer to the recognition of the need to defeat the Islamic State. Trump responded by accusing Bush, whom he has mocked as a low-wattage candidate, of working to recover his energy.
“Donald, you’re not going to be able to insult your way to the presidency,” Bush retorted.
Threats from the Islamic State were the evening’s overarching theme. One of the sharpest exchanges unfolded between Rubio and Cruz. Rubio said that a Cruz-backed bill would weaken National Security Agency efforts to track terrorists’ phone calls.
Cruz countered that Rubio’s attacks were disingenuous, saying the new program he supported would expand the capacity to stop terrorists.
Rubio and Cruz clashed again over whether Syrian leader Bashar Assad should be removed from power. Rubio said he would not “shed a tear,” while Cruz responded that Mideast strongmen are rarely replaced with moderate dissidents but instead with extremists.
Later, Rubio and Cruz battled on immigration policy. Rubio reiterated support for an eventual path to citizenship for some illegal immigrants. Cruz lumped Rubio in with Democrats as a supporter of amnesty, drawing Rubio’s volley that Cruz, too, backed expanded legal immigration.
Both retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and Governor John Kasich of Ohio bemoaned what they called the primary’s fractious tone.
Carson said his critics blamed him for not being ornery enough, and said, “The fact of the matter is, look and see what I’ve done. And that speaks volumes about strength.”
Despite the onstage spats, the night laid bare how Republicans have united around national security and American strength abroad as the best litigation against Democrats.
By hammering Obama on homeland security and foreign policy, the GOP reaps the benefit of critiquing a president whose management of those areas scores weakly in recent polling and hitting Clinton, who Republicans almost universally believe will be the Democratic nominee.
The debate, hosted by CNN, was the first since the terrorist attacks in Beirut, Paris, and San Bernardino, Calif. It began hours after Los Angeles schools were shut down after what authorities initially deemed a credible terror threat.
The campaign now shifts into a new phase, as candidates stump frantically before the Christmas holiday likely imposes a lull. Once 2016 begins, candidates will run in a virtual sprint to the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 1.
Results there could upend strategies before New Hampshire casts its votes eight days later. The South Carolina primary and Nevada caucuses are scheduled for 11 and 14 days later for Republicans, respectively.
From there, 12 states vote on March 1, known as Super Tuesday, which this campaign is tilted heavily toward southern states, but also includes Massachusetts.
Campaigns have long been etching blueprints around the calendar’s demands. Several candidates have planned extended visits to New Hampshire, Iowa, and the southern states — a cluster that will dominate Super Tuesday’s balloting.
While candidates continue pouring into early-voting states, none has been able to overtake Trump’s dominance in national polls. That situation has continued as Trump has repeatedly made the types of statements that would have doomed previous front-runners.
Last week, Trump’s call for a ban on Muslims entering the United States drew condemnation from inside the party as dangerous and un-American, but spelled no discernible drop in the polls.
Many top Republicans worry Trump could opt to continue his candidacy as an independent, splitting right-leaning voters between himself and the GOP nominee, and essentially gifting the election to Clinton. But on Tuesday night, Trump rejected the notion he would run as an independent when pressed by a debate moderator.
Some party strategists and operatives gathered here for the debate said privately that a new dynamic had gained steam within the party, as Cruz had begun to peel away some Trump supporters. Cruz, who recently topped polling in Iowa, could emerge as the “compromise conservative” among some voters and even scattered elements of the establishment.
But party insiders admit that, as more moderate Republicans struggle to unify, the primary season has spiraled into the unpredictable.
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