Two of the candidates in the “undercard” portion of Tuesday night’s GOP debate said they would shoot down Russian planes in the airspace over Syria, if America set up a “no-fly zone” there and Russia violated it.
“The most important and effective thing you can do to a bully is punch ‘em in the face,” said former New York governor George Pataki, after calling Russian President Vladimir Putin a bully. If Russian aircraft violate airspace that America has shut off, “either us or the Turks should shoot ‘em down, to keep our word.”
Former senator Rick Santorum (Pa.) agreed, saying that the consequence of such a shoot-down would not be a full war with Russia, but rather a localized reaction like the one that followed the Turkish government’s recent downing of a Russian jet.
More than an hour into the debate, the only topic had been Islamic radicalism, and the fight against it in the Middle East and in the West. The only other subjects that came up were a pair of other, better-polling candidates who were not onstage: billionaire Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz.
Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.), one of the lowest-polling candidates in this back-of-the-pack debate, attacked Cruz for allegedly supporting Russia and Iran’s policy goal in Syria, the preservation of the regime of Bashar Assad. Graham said that backing the brutal Assad would drive more people into the arms of the Islamic State, which opposes him.
“You say, you would keep Assad in power. I will tell you that is the worst possible thing that would come out,” Graham said. He noted that Cruz’s favorite movie is “The Princess Bride,” and followed with some rather forced references to that movie. “Ted, getting in bed with Iran and Russia to save Assad is inconceivable. Princess Buttercup would not like this.”
Earlier, Graham declared “I miss George W. Bush” to applause during the “undercard” portion of the fifth GOP presidential debate, saying that President Obama’s weakness overseas had made the world more dangerous for Americans.
“I miss George W. Bush! I wish he were president right now!” Graham said, to applause. “We wouldn’t be in this mess. I’m tired of dictators walking over us.”
Graham’s remarks came during a gloomy, warlike warm-up debate, in which all four candidates talked almost exclusively about Islamic terrorism, and the threat posed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
The four low-polling candidates onstage worried about the power of the Islamic State, and debated how much to increase American efforts to attack the militant group in its base in the Middle East.
It was a remarkable sign of how much the Islamic State – and the recent terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif. – had managed to reshape the entire presidential debate. The four candidates onstage agreed that America needed to do more to destroy the Islamic State’s home base in Syria and Iraq, although they disagreed about the role America should play in a broader military campaign.
Graham called for a broad influx of American ground troops, who would drive out the Islamic State and occupy its territory for an unknown period afterward. Santorum argued that this would play into the Islamic State’s apocalyptic vision, which promises a defeat for enemy armies in a particular Syrian town. Pataki sought a middle ground, saying he wanted to defeat the group on the ground, but not stay long enough to build a democratic state in its place.
“We do not have to occupy,” Pataki said. “We have to destroy ISIS,” he said, using another name for the group.
And former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee took a coy route, saying he would not actually say how many troops he would deploy to the fight, because it would give valuable information to the enemy. He was also asked: Was it true that Huckabee wanted to defeat the Islamic State in 10 days?
“I sure want them to think we would,” Huckabee said.
Earlier Huckabee said the U.S. government should address the threat Islamic extremism poses in the United States. He said intelligence agencies should listen in to sermons in American mosques, to be sure that they are not encouraging violence.
“When people say we can’t go into the mosques, and we can’t listen. That’s utter nonsense. Of course we can,” Huckabee said, noting that churches and mosques were public places where anyone could come in and listen. And, if the mosques don’t allow people in to listen, Huckabee said that could be grounds for more intense surveillance: “Maybe we do need for sure to send somebody in there and gather this intelligence.”
Huckabee’s comments were followed by Santorum, who said that the traditional First Amendment protections for religious groups did not apply to Islam in the same way they applied to other religions.
“Islam is different . . . Islam is not just a religion. It is also a political governing structure,” with its own prescriptions for law, Santorum said. “The idea that that is protected under the First amendment is wrong. And in fact it is that political structure that is a big problem.”
Those comments drew a response from Graham, who had repeatedly urged those onstage not to denigrate Islam in general while talking about violent Islamic radicals.
“There are at least 3,500 Muslims serving in the American armed forces. Thank you for your service. You are not the enemy. Your religion is not the enemy,” Graham said. He told his rivals: “Leave the faith alone. Go after the radicals that kill us all.”
From the start the debate has focused almost exclusively on Islam, and the fight against violent radicals in Syria, Iraq and the West.
Earlier, Santorum said “World War III” has already begun.
“We have entered World War III. World War III has begun, and we have a leader who refuses to identify it,” said Santorum, meaning America’s global conflict with Islamic militant groups, and the threat posed by the government of Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Huckabee said that Americans were fearful because of incidents like the Dec. 2 terrorist attack that killed 14 people in San Bernardino, Calif. “We have an enemy that is out to kill us, and we have a government we can’t trust anymore,” Huckabee said.
But the four low-polling candidates on the stage argued about whether the race’s front-runner, billionaire Donald Trump, had gone too far in calling for a temporary ban on Muslims entering the United States.
Santorum said that Trump’s argument had been misconstrued: It wasn’t an attack on Muslims, it was an attack on the Obama administration, which had allowed the female shooter in San Bernardino to enter the country despite social-media postings in favor of radical groups.
“Donald Trump’s comments was nothing against Muslim. His comment was against this administration,” Santorum said, to applause. He added that, although not all Muslims are radicals, “All jihadists are Muslims. That’s reality. And we have to stop worrying about offending some people, and start defending all Americans.”
That drew a rebuke from Graham, who said that calls for blocking Muslims played into the Islamic State’s strategy of pitting all Muslims against America. “This is the way to help our enemies. Stop this before it’s too late,” Graham said.
The “undercard” Republican debate, featuring the four low-polling candidates, began at 6:30 p.m. Eastern time. It will be followed at 8:30 p.m. Eastern by the main event. Both are being broadcast on CNN.
Tuesday night’s undercard debate may be even less consequential than usual, since the two politicians whose battles defined the last undercard — New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal — will be absent this time. Jindal dropped out of the race, and Christie moved up to the main stage.
Although there will be 13 candidates onstage between the two debates, the GOP race seems largely to have narrowed down to four — or perhaps three — men. Between them, they have eight years of experience in federal office.
Trump remains the front-runner, despite a string of incendiary comments about Mexicans, illegal immigrants and, recently, Muslims. In fact, a new Washington Post-ABC News poll released Tuesday showed Trump’s lead was larger than ever. Trump stood at 38 percent among registered Republicans and GOP-leaning independents in that poll, six points higher than in October and November.
In a Las Vegas rally Monday night, Trump returned to the themes that have defined his campaign so far: gloom about the country, worries about immigrants and boasts about himself.
“The American Dream is dead,” Trump said near the end of his remarks at the rally. “But we’re going to make it bigger and better and stronger than ever before.”
On Tuesday, Trump was planning to meet with a Republican mega-donor and Las Vegas titan, Sheldon Adelson.
Adelson, who owns The Venetian casino and hotel on the Vegas strip, was the major funder behind former House speaker Newt Gingrich’s campaign in 2012.
Other candidates, including Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), have sought Adelson’s favor — and his financial support. But Trump said he didn’t want the mogul’s money.
“What I told Sheldon through his people is that I’d love their support. It’s unnecessary, but I’d like his support. I don’t want his money,” Trump said.
Other major contenders include Rubio, the GOP establishment’s best hope, and Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.), a despised figure in Washington who seems to be tapping into the same anti-establishment fervor as Trump.
The fourth at the top is retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, but his star seems to be fading. Carson had been challenging Trump at the top of national polls earlier this fall. But his fortunes seem to have been hurt by new questions about his life story — Carson, for instance, had long implied that he had been accepted by the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., when he had not. Carson also seemed to struggle with new topics: During a speech to Jewish Republicans, he repeatedly mispronounced the name of the Palestinian militant group Hamas. Carson said it like “hummus.”
The Post-ABC News poll showed that Carson’s support had been cut roughly in half over the past month. Cruz has aggressively courted the same bloc of evangelical voters that once formed Carson’s base.
Other candidates — even on the main stage — need a major boost from Tuesday’s debate, just to stay relevant.
Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.), the libertarian-ish son of repeat presidential candidate Ron Paul, was once crowned the most interesting man in Washington. But his numbers are so low that he barely made the main debate.
Retired tech executive Carly Fiorina, who was the breakout star of the first GOP debates, has faded since then, hurt by a scanty campaign organization. The shift of the campaign toward issues of national security seems to have hurt her, because she is not seen as an expert on the topic.
Christie has come up from rock bottom in recent weeks, rising in New Hampshire polls after strong town-hall performances. Christie, who was a federal prosecutor, is hoping that new concerns about terrorism will push this race — at last — to a “serious” phase.
That means a phase in which people want experience and Christie, not insults and Trump.
“This race has been entertaining — very entertaining,” Christie told a packed crowd at a town-hall meeting here last weekend. But, he declared, “showtime is over, everybody.”
“You don’t want somebody sitting in the [Oval Office] chair, spinning around going, ‘Gee, whiz, isn’t it great to be president?’ ” he added. “You want somebody who’s going to . . . understand from the first minute he sits in that chair that this is serious business.”
The other candidates on the main stage will be former Florida governor Jeb Bush and Ohio Gov. John Kasich.
Sean Sullivan, Phillip Rucker, Abby Phillip, Dan Balz and Scott Clement contributed to this report.