NORTH CHARLESTON, South Carolina: With the first vote of America’s 2016 election a fortnight away, Republican presidential frontrunners Donald Trump and Ted Cruz dispensed with months of niceties and locked horns in a primetime debate Thursday.
The duo held an extended back-and-forth over conservative values and Trump’s allegation that Cruz, a hardline Texas Senator born in Canada, might be legally blocked from becoming president.
With the February 1 nomination ballot in Iowa coming into sharp focus, Cruz who is running a close second to Trump in the state, accused the controversial mogul of panicking.
“Back in September, my friend Donald said he had his lawyers look at this from every which way and there was no issue there,” said Cruz.
“Now since September, the constitution hasn’t changed. But the poll numbers have,” he added. “Donald is dismayed that his poll numbers are falling in Iowa.”
He went on to point out that Trump, whose mother was born in Scotland, was disqualifying himself.
Trump shot back: “As you know, Ted, in the last three polls I’m beating you. So you shouldn’t misrepresent how well you’re doing with the polls.”
“You have a big lawsuit over your head.”
The debate among seven Republican candidates in South Carolina came as unease grows within the Republican Party over Trump’s frontrunner status.
The controversial celebrity has long led in national polls and his campaign shows no signs of collapsing before Iowa becomes the first state to vote in a long nominating process.
Trump has ridden a wave of populist anger with Washington, frustration over the nation’s patchy economic recovery, and fear about a growing terrorism threat.
After months of tiptoeing around the frontrunner, the party establishment appears to be mustering its forces, believing the polarizing populist’s inflammatory message is more dangerous than the risk of him launching an independent run.
South Carolina’s own Governor Nikki Haley fired the opening salvo against Trump during her rebuttal to Barack Obama’s State of the Union address on Tuesday.
Calling on Republicans to ignore the “angriest voices” in their party, the possible vice presidential candidate trained her sights as much on Trump as the Democratic president.
Trump described Haley as a “friend,” but the stinging criticism highlighted the struggle between a rebellious Republican rank-and-file drawn to Trump’s outsider populism and the party’s conservative establishment.
Cruz rounded on Trump, accusing him of having “New York values” — pro-abortion, pro-gay rights and pro media — in a clear play for votes in conservative Iowa.
“Not a lot of conservatives come out of Manhattan,” he joked.
Trump described the comment as “very insulting” and defended New Yorkers who bounced back after 9/11.
“When the World Trade Center came down, I saw something that no place on Earth could have handled more beautifully.”
Cruz, who has run as an ultra-patriotic anti-elitist, was also forced to address a potentially damaging charge that he borrowed money from Wall Street banks while running for the Senate without properly reporting it.
He admitted to making an error of paperwork, and tried to deflect criticism by accusing the New York Times — who first revealed the non-disclosure — of conducting a “hit job.”
Trump and Cruz were joined on stage Thursday by Senator Marco Rubio; retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson; New Jersey Governor Chris Christie; Ohio Governor John Kasich and former Florida governor Jeb Bush.
Iran’s seizure and quick release of 10 US Navy sailors, was another major topic of conversation among the candidates, who lined up to paint President Barack Obama as weak and delusional on the topic of national security.
Cruz proclaimed himself “horrified” to see “ten American sailors on their knees with their hands on their head.”
“It was heart-breaking, but the good news is the next commander-in-chief is standing on this stage.”