MANCHESTER, N.H. (AP) — Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, first-term senators on the rise in the presidential race, faced a barrage of attacks in Saturday night’s Republican debate, with rivals challenging Cruz’s controversial campaign tactics and Rubio’s readiness to be president.
While Rubio finished third in the leadoff Iowa caucuses, he exceeded expectations and appears to be gaining steam heading into Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary. His rise is a threat not only to front-runners Donald Trump and Cruz but to a trio of governors — Jeb Bush, Chris Christie and John Kasich — who need a strong showing in New Hampshire to stay in the campaign.
Christie took immediate aim at Rubio Saturday night, declaring that the Florida senator has “not been involved in a consequential decision where you need to be held accountable.” Bush in turn said Rubio was a gifted politician but warned voters against again putting the White House in the hands of a first-term senator.
“We’ve tried it the old way, with Barack Obama and soaring rhetoric,” said Bush, who served as a political mentor to Rubio in Florida.
Rubio said he was proud of his service in the Senate and suggested Obama’s problems were less about experience and more about ideology. He also defended his decision to walk away from the sweeping immigration bill he originally backed in the Senate — perhaps the legislation he’s most closely associated with — and said he wouldn’t pursue similar legislation as president.
“We can’t get that legislation passed,” Rubio said of the bill that would have provided a pathway to citizenship for millions of people in the United States illegally.
Cruz was the victor in Iowa, triumphing over billionaire Trump by drawing heavily on the support of evangelical voters. But he’s faced criticism for messages his campaign sent to voters ahead of the caucuses saying rival Ben Carson — another favorite of religious conservatives — was dropping out and urging the retired neurosurgeon’s supporters to back him instead.
Cruz apologized for his campaign’s actions Saturday, but not before Carson jabbed him for having “Washington ethics.”
Those ethics, he said, “say if it’s legal, you do what you do to win.”
Trump was back on the debate stage after skipping the last contest before the Iowa caucuses. After spending the past several days disputing his second-place finish in Iowa, he sought to refocus on the core messages of his campaign, including blocking Muslims from coming to the U.S. and deporting all people in the country illegally.
Kasich, who has staked his White House hopes on New Hampshire, offered a more moderate view on immigration, though one that’s unpopular with many GOP primary voters. He said that if elected president, he would introduce legislation that would provide a pathway to legalization, though not citizenship, within his first 100 days in office.
The debate began shortly after North Korea defied international warnings and launched a long-range rocket that the United Nations and others call a cover for a banned test of technology for a missile that could strike the U.S. mainland.
Asked how he would respond to North Korea’s provocations, Bush said he would authorize a pre-emptive strike against such rockets if it was necessary to keep America safe. Cruz demurred, saying he wouldn’t speculate about how he’d handle the situation without a full briefing. And Trump said he’d rely on China to “quickly and surgically” handle North Korea.