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Republicans Argue Over How to Keep America Safe as Trump Sticks to Muslim Ban at Debate

The Republican debate, hosted by CNN in Las Vegas, was the first since the terrorist attacks on Paris and San Bernardino.
December 16, 2015, 6:45am
John Locher/AP

It was an evening of high stakes and low blows, fear mongering and bellicosity, as the still-crowded GOP field assembled Tuesday for one last tussle this year.

The Republican debate, hosted by CNN in Las Vegas and moderated by Wolf Blitzer, was the first since the terrorist attacks on Paris and San Bernardino. Unsurprisingly, the debate centered on national security and foreign policy.

The big question pundits had prior to the event was whether property tycoon and current frontrunner Donald Trump would back down from his inflammatory proposal to ban Muslims from traveling to the US in the aftermath of the attacks. The comments were universally panned, but cautiously so by other GOP candidates.

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Trump appeared to have no regrets.

"People with cellphones, with ISIS flags on them?" Trump replied. "I don't think so, Wolf. They're not coming to this country."

New Jersey governor Chris Christie also firmly defended his call to bar the entry of Syrian refugees, including orphans under the age of five.

"The first job of the president of the United States is to protect your safety and your security and the security and safety of your family," Christie said. "And it was widows and orphans, by the way."

"We now know from watching the San Bernardino attacks that women can commit heinous acts against humanity just the same as men can do," Christie added. "So I don't back away from that position for a minute."

Trump's airtime was squeezed by Texas Senator Ted Cruz and Florida Senator Marco Rubio's sparring, which gained them more talk time than any other candidates.

Final talk times:Cruz 15:58Rubio 13:33Trump 13:25Christie 10:45Carson 10:27Bush 10:13Paul 9:46Fiorina 9:32Kasich: 9:00— NPR Politics (@nprpolitics)December 16, 2015

Cruz seemed reluctant to trash talk Trump, masterfully sidestepping any questions which might require direct confrontation.

When Blitzer asked Cruz about Trump's proposal to ban Muslims, Cruz said "everyone understands why Trump has suggested what he has," and then added "we should focus on the problem and defeat it. It's not a war on faith. It's a war on a political and theocratic ideology that seeks to murder us."

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The bonhomie between the pair seemed to flow in both directions. Trump recently called Cruz a "maniac," but said towards the end of the debate that he had spent "some time" with Cruz, and had changed his mind, and that he was even considering nominating him as his running mate.

There was a lot of talk about technology and what Kentucky Senator Rand Paul described as "that internet thing" — particularly in reference to the San Bernardino shooters whose alleged declarations of jihad on Facebook in 2012 flew right under the FBI's noses. Businesswoman Carly Fiorina strutted her Hewlett Packard past, stressing the need for a more tech-savvy counter-terrorism program.

As communication methods between terrorists grow increasingly sophisticated, Fiorina argued, the Department of Homeland Security's toolbox is looking increasingly outdated.

"Every parent in America is checking social media, and every employer," she said. "But our government can't?"

.— CNN Politics (@CNNPolitics)December 16, 2015

Meanwhile, Trump struggled to clarify exactly what he meant when, earlier this month, he said he was in favor of closing off parts of the internet, and shrugged off fears that this could threaten freedom of speech.

"ISIS is recruiting through the internet," Trump said. "ISIS is using the internet better than we are using the internet, and it was our idea."

"I want to get the brilliant people from Silicon Valley and other places and figure out a way that ISIS can't do what they're doing."

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When Blitzer pressed him, Trump said, "I would certainly be open to closing areas where we are at war with somebody. I sure as hell don't want to let people that want to kill us and kill our nation use our internet."

Senator Rand Paul (whose low poll numbers meant he qualified for the primetime debate by the skin of his teeth) condemned Trump's idea as "unconstitutional."

Trump later circled back to further clarify. "I'm not talking about closing the internet. I'm talking about closing parts of the Internet where ISIS is."

He then added that an idea he likes even more was enlisting the "brilliant people from Silicon Valley" to "penetrate" the internet of the Islamic State. This was met with boos from the audience. "Who would boo at me?" Trump demanded. "I can't imagine someone who would be booing at me."

Surveillance has been a divisive issue among the GOP, and was just one of the subjects that had Rubio and Cruz trading blows. Cruz was asked if he now regretted backing the USA Freedom Act which rolled back the NSA's bulk metadata collection program. Cruz's response was to ask why the civil liberties of "law abiding citizens" were the ones that had to suffer, instead of just "the bad guys."

Rubio argued that Cruz and others who had supported the bill had jeopardized the nation's national security.

"We need more tools, not less tools," Rubio said. "And that tool we lost, the metadata program, was a valuable tool that we no longer have at our disposal."

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Paul came to Cruz's defense and suggested that Rubio was simply posturing by claiming to be strong on national defense. "He has more of an allegiance to Chuck Schumer and the liberals than he does on conservative policy," Paul said, referring to the New York senator.

Governor Jeb Bush, whose performance in the polls has slumped, struggled to fight Trump's vitriol. Trump suggested that Bush was too nice to be the tough president the country needs.

"Donald, you're not going to be able to insult your way to the presidency that's not going to happen," Bush said. "Leadership is not about attacking people and disparaging people. Leadership is about creating a serious strategy."

"With Jeb's attitude, we will never be great again," Trump said. "That I can tell you. We will never be great again,"

.— CNN Politics (@CNNPolitics)December 16, 2015

Ben Carson said he supported surveilling mosques and schools where anti-American sentiment was present. "We need to get rid of all this PC stuff," Carson said. "Everyone's worried about being Islamophobic. That's crazy. We are at war. We need to be on a war footing. Our nation is in grave danger."

Earlier, the bottom four contenders made up of Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, Senator Lindsay Graham, and former New York governor George Pataki sparred in a second string debate that also focused on surveillance.

Huckabee insisted that surveilling mosques wouldn't violate anyone's First Amendment rights.

"If Islam is as wonderful and peaceful as its adherents say," Huckabee argued, "shouldn't they be begging us to come and listen to their sermons?" Santorum said Islam is "different" from other religions. "It's a political governing structure," he said, "and the idea that it's protected under the First Amendment is wrong."

In response, Graham thanked the service of the "3,500 American Muslims serving in the armed forces" and added: "you are not the enemy. Your religion is not the enemy." Graham also stressed that thousands of Muslims have been the victims of extremist groups such as IS, and that Trump's proposal potentially alienates key allies in the Muslim world, singling out King Abdullah of Jordan as an example."

Climate change barely received any mention, in spite of the Pentagon's report this year that determined that global warming posed a significant threat to national security.

Follow Tess Owen on Twitter: @misstessowen