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GOP Presidential Candidates Clash Over Security Issues In 5th Debate


The Republican candidates clashed on terrorism, immigration and foreign policy in their fifth debate last night in Las Vegas. They'll have just one more debate before the first votes are cast in Iowa. As NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson reports, the candidates agreed on only one thing. They all said President Obama and Hillary Clinton have not kept America safe.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Coming into last night's debate at the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas, the big question was who would take on Donald Trump over his controversial plan to temporarily bar Muslims from entering the U.S.? It turned out it was Jeb Bush, who has sparred with Trump before.


JEB BUSH: Look, this is not a serious proposal. In fact, it will push the Muslim world, the Arab world away from us at a time when we need to reengage with them to be able to create a strategy to destroy ISIS. So Donald, you know, is great at the one-liners, but he's a chaos candidate, and he'd be a chaos president. He would not be the commander in chief we need to keep our country safe.



DONALD TRUMP: Job doesn't really believe I'm unhinged. He said that very simply because he has failed in this campaign. It's been a total disaster. Nobody cares.

LIASSON: Bush is now polling in the single digits. But Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, who are in the top tier with Trump, chose not to criticize him. And Trump himself chose not to repeat his campaign trail attack on Cruz, who is polling second to him in national surveys and ahead of him in Iowa. The moderators tried reminding Trump he had once said he'd put Cruz on his ticket, then more recently, called him a maniac.


DANA BASH: So why would you be willing to put somebody who's...

TRUMP: Let me just...

BASH: ...A maniac one heartbeat away from the presidency.

TRUMP: But I've gotten to know him over the last three or four days. He has a wonderful temperament. He's just fine. Don't worry about it.

LIASSON: Then, moderator Dana Bash tried to get Cruz to repeat something he said about Trump's judgment at a private fundraiser.


BASH: Why are you willing to say things about him in private and not in public?

TED CRUZ: Dana, what I said in private is exactly what I'll say here, which is that the judgment that every voter is making of every one of us up here is who has the experience, who has the vision, who has the judgment to be commander in chief?

LIASSON: Terrorism is now the number one issue for Republican voters, and all the candidates promised to be stronger and tougher to fight it. Cruz said he would carpet bomb ISIS. John Kasich said he'd punch the Russians in the nose. And Chris Christie described the conversation he'd have from the White House with Vladimir Putin.


CHRIS CHRISTIE: Listen, Mr. President, there's a no-fly zone in Syria. You fly in, it applies to you. And, yes, we would shoot down the planes of Russian pilots if, in fact, they were stupid enough to think that this president was the same feckless weakling that the president we have in the oval office is right now.


BLITZER: Sen. Paul?

RAND PAUL: Well, I think if you're in favor of World War III, you have your candidate. You know, here's the thing.

LIASSON: The Republicans were asked whether Americans were safer with autocrats running the Middle East, since so many of them have been replaced by jihadists or chaos. Donald Trump said that the $4 trillion the U.S. spent toppling dictators could have been better spent at home.


TRUMP: The Middle East is totally destabilized - a total and complete mess. I wish we had the $4 trillion or $5 trillion. I wish it were spent right here in the United States on our schools, hospitals, roads, airports and everything else that are all falling apart.

LIASSON: Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz confronted each other on defense spending, NSA cell phone surveillance and their biggest divide, immigration. Rubio said he was personally open over a long period of time to offering a path to citizenship for immigrants here illegally. Rubio's work on a comprehensive immigration bill is one of his biggest vulnerabilities with Republican primary voters. And he's been arguing that, in fact, he and Cruz weren't so far apart.


MARCO RUBIO: Ted, you support legalizing people who are in this country illegally. Ted Cruz supported a 500 percent increase in the number of H1B visas to guest workers that are allowed into this country. And Ted supports doubling the number of green cards.

LIASSON: Cruz said that wasn't accurate. He reminded the audience that he had led the fight against Rubio's legislation.


CRUZ: He has attempted to muddy the waters, but I think anyone that watched the battle that we had - you know, there was a time for choosing, as Reagan put it, where there was a battle over amnesty. And some chose, like Sen. Rubio, to stand with Barack Obama and Chuck Schumer and support a massive amnesty plan.

LIASSON: These two young, Cuban-American first-term Senators are betting that the Republican race will eventually revert to a more traditional battle between a conservative, Cruz, and an establishment candidate, Rubio. So they reserved their attacks for each other, not Donald Trump. But Trump made the biggest news of the night.


HUGH HEWITT: Are you ready to reassure Republicans tonight that you will run as a Republican and abide by the decision of the Republicans?

TRUMP: I really am. I'll be honest. I really am. I mean, people have been putting me...


TRUMP: I really am.

LIASSON: Republican party leaders have been worrying about the damage a Trump nomination could do to the party, but also what might happen if he left the GOP and took his supporters with him. But last night, Trump said he would stay a Republican and do everything in his power to beat Hillary Clinton. Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.
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