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Republican Candidates Duke It Out Over National Security

Sara Tiano |
December 15, 2015 | 10:42 p.m. PST

News Editor

Jeb Bush had fighting words at the ready for Donald Trump in the 5th debate. (Creative Commons)
Jeb Bush had fighting words at the ready for Donald Trump in the 5th debate. (Creative Commons)
In keeping with the theme of national security, Republican candidates made sure to wage a few battles of their own on the debate stage when they met Tuesday night for the 5th time this campaign season. Sparring matches broke out between Jeb Bush and Donald Trump as well Sens. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio. Those who stayed above the fray, though, didn’t get much talking time. 

Though it lacked the fireworks that some of the other on-stage spats had, the heaviest blow came when Rand Paul stepped back to ask the question often considered the elephant in the room:

“Is Donald Trump a serious candidate?” Paul questioned, in the primetime debated aired on CNN. 

Paul asked those who’d consider voting for Trump—who said during the debate that he’d shut down parts of the Internet and kill the families of ISIS members in his crusade to take down the radical group—to question their belief in the Constitution. 

This debate coming on the heels of attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, as well as threats against the two largest school districts in America Tuesday, ISIS was far and away the most talked about issue of the evening. Candidates offered their ideas on how to best stop the radical terrorist group, as well as other threats to America, both foreign and domestic, with topics ranging from airstrikes to surveillance. Here’s how each candidate fared.


From the opening statements, Trump adamantly stood behind statements he’d made previously that he’d ban the entrance of all Muslims into the country. He also backed up a claim he’d made that he’d be willing to shut down the Internet, at least in part, in his crusade against ISIS, despite moderator Wolf Blitzer mentioning that some people felt a move like that would put America in league with North Korea. Trump also stood by a statement that he thinks the U.S. should target and kill family members of ISIS, drawing boos from the crowd.

“I don’t know who would boo that,” Trump said, looking out to the crowd. “These people want to kill us, folks.” 

In terms of navigating the Syria situation—the fact that America had been working to oust Syrian President Bashar al Assad since long before ISIS became a global threat—Donald Trump said  “Assad’s a bad guy,” but that the priority must be on defeating ISIS, and that the Assad situation can be put on hold in the meantime. 

READ MORE: A Letter To The Governors Seeking To Turn Away Syrian Refugees

In terms of his capability to take on the responsibility of protecting the country’s nuclear power, Trump said his greatest fear was a “madman getting ahold of a nuclear weapon,” which is ironic because that’s what some people are concerned about when considering the possibility of him as president. 

Shortly before the closing statements, Trump announced that he wouldn’t mount an independent run if he doesn’t win the GOP nomination. 

“I’m totally committed to the Republican Party,” he said.


Much of Bush’s talking time was spent attacking Trump, and using it as a backdrop to bolster his own experience in government, dropping lines like “He gets his foreign policy experience from ‘the shows’.” Ironically, though, one he got initial applause for, and repeated later was “You can’t insult your way to the presidency."

Bush argued against Trump’s proposal of banning all Muslim refugees, saying it would “push the Arab world away from us at a time when we need them to engage with us.” Bush said such a drastic move would be as dangerous to the security of America as the “inaction of the Obama administration” that Trump and other Republican candidates say has made America unsafe. 

“Trump is a chaos candidate, he’d be a chaos president,” Bush said, delivering the first of several blows he’d send to the party’s frontrunner. “We need a serious leader to deal with this.”

Other than his tiffs with Trump, Bush delivered another flat performance. Even in the closing statement, the best tagline he could manage was “For America to be safe and sound, I ask for your support." 


Former HP executive Carly Fiorina focused her message this evening around two major themes: how the private tech sector could help cover the gaps in security caused by outdated government technology, and how America is fed up with the “professional political class.” Both themes serve to make her background in the tech industry an edge over the other candidates. 

READ MORE: Round-Up, Round Four: Twitter Reacts To The Fourth GOP Debate

Fiorina blamed “bad algorithms” and inefficient bureaucratic procedures for the fact that national security surveillance missed planned attacks on American soil, such as the Boston bombing by the Tsarnaev brothers and the more recent San Bernardino attacks. She said the government is years behind on their technological capabilities.

“Every parent in America checks Facebook, and the U.S. government isn’t checking Facebook?” Fiorina questioned, knocking the government’s understanding of the changing social media landscape. 

She suggested that the private sector can and will help rectify this shortcoming in American surveillance, citing an instance in which the NSA reached out to her in her capacity as CEO of Hewlett-Packard for help obtaining data that stopped a terrorist attack. 


“America is at war,” were the first words out of Ted Cruz’s mouth. 

He focused on “radical Islamic jihadists” as far and away the greatest threat to American security. Cruz proposed a 3-year suspension of immigrants from countries where the majority of territory is held by ISIS. 

“We will not be admitting refugees as jihadists,” he said.

When asked of recent comments regarding his plans to heavily bomb ISIS meant he would level the ISIS capital of Raqqa, home to hundreds of thousands of civilians, Cruz's reponse was incomprehensible, and didn't clearly answer the question. 

READ MORE:  ICYMI: The Fourth GOP Debate

Cruz and Rubio sparred several times, once over amnesty and immigration, and once over Cruz’s vote for the Freedom Act, which ended a major NSA surveillance program. Cruz argued that it gave law enforcement more options of what types of devices it could monitor, but Rubio countered that he shouldn’t have supported a bill that removed any tools from law enforcement at all, and that the Freedom Act did. 

Trump, who recently suggested Cruz was unfit for the presidential duty of protecting the nuclear codes, reneged his statement, saying “Cruz has a wonderful temperament.”

At one point in the evening, Cruz refused to yield the floor to Blitzer, and continued to shout over him, despite the fact that everyone was far too entranced by his childish behavior to actually hear what he was saying.


Despite being embroiled with Cruz all night, Rubio had one of the stronger performances, appearing knowledgeable and thoughtful about his plan for combatting ISIS in the Middle East.

He focused on the need for ISIS, a radical Sunni Muslim faction, to be fought by fellow Sunni Muslims who “reject them ideologically and confront them militarily.” He also specified a need for American involvement in ground efforts, but in small numbers, not unlike the small deployment of special operartions forces ealier this year. He also called for an increased budget and updated equipment for the military.

In terms of the domestic threat, Rubio talked about, not closing borders, but implementing more rigorous border checks, offering specifics on how much of an increase he envisioned for border protection. He highlighted the need for increased surveillance as the bigger issue in mitigating the domestic terrorist threat. In regards to Americans recruited by ISIS, Rubio said he'd treat them as "enemy combatants."

"If you're an American citizen and you join up with ISIS, we're not going to read you your Miranda rights," he said.


Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson didn’t get a ton of speaking time, but the camera time he did get didn’t serve him well. Several times Carson’s answers meandered so far from the questions that the moderators had to refocus him. For example, when asked about whether or not he could handle declaring war, he began to answer about the love in the eyes of the children he’d saved with brain surgery. 

When he did talk about national security, he was full of facts, so much so that it often sounded as though he was reciting a book report that he’d written on the subject, more than a person discussing something he’s well-versed in. Other than that, he largely offered broad, sweeping statements.

“If we don’t get the military right, nothing else matters,” is one such example.

He used his opening statement to call for a moment of silence for the victims of last week’s attack in San Bernardino.


New Jersey Gov. Christie used the national security debate to highlight his experience, deemed successful by him, in fighting “radial jihadist Islam.” As expected, he heavily cited his time as United States attorney in a post-9/11 America and as governor of a region of the country heavily affected by terrorism. 

“That’s the difference between having been a former prosecutor, having spent your time getting things done, instead of being one of 100 debating about them,” he said, chiding his fellow candidates who were bickering on stage. 

READ MORE: National Security Will Be Central In 5th GOP Debate

When a viewer’s question posed via Facebook asked Christie to reconcile banning refugees with the teachings of Christianity, the former New Jersey governor maintained a hard line. 

“I’m not going to let any Syrian refugee into this country,” he said. “I’m don’t back down from that position for a minute.”

Another major point for Christie was this year’s nuclear deal with Iran, which he called a disaster that he never would have let happen. He called the country a terrorist state that was “inextricably linked” to ISIS.

“You miss Iran, you miss ISIS,” Christie said of his strategy for the Middle East. 


Staunch libertarian Rand Paul used the national security themed debate as an opportunity to bring up the irony of America arming various groups in the Middle East, and then having to fight wars against their own weapons in the war on terror. In deriding this meddling in the wars of other countries, he attempted to bolster his own isolationist beliefs. 

Paul cited the national debt as the greatest threat to American security by his estimation, further denigrating the government’s recent history of running on deficit while fighting foreign wars on borrowed money. 

He adamantly argued against any increase in government surveillance of its citizens, and has expressed before he already thinks the NSA does too much of it. He suggested border security as a major concern in the threat of terrorism in Americain his attack on Rubio’s immigration policy. 

“He wants to think he’s all tough on terrorism, but he’s the weakest on immigration,” Paul said of the Cuban immigrant


Ohio Gov. John Kasich largely maintained his moderate positions on everything, and through the barbs being tossed around stage, he kept a positive, upbeat tone in his voice, and stuck to non-combative language. For example, when it came to blocking Muslim refugees, Kasich said for safety’s sake he’d “take a pause.”

His take on Syria is that “Assad must go,” and that there are moderate rebels who we should be supporting.

Kasich showed stronger feelings for Assad’s biggest alley: Russia. 

“Frankly, it’s time we punch Russia in the nose. They get away with too much in this world,” he said.

Kasich’s strongest seeling point of the night came in his closing statements when he reminded voters of the kind of weight he carried as the son of Ohio. 

“No Republican has won the nomination without winning Ohio,” he said, before going on to explain just how he himself had already won Ohio.


Frank Underwood and the hit Netflix show “House of Cards” stole the show when they premiered the trailer for their 4th season during a commercial break. While Americans may still not know who they’re voting for in November, come March 4, it’ll be all about this pragmatic president.  

Reach Senior News Editor Sara Tiano here. Follow here on Twitter here.



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