With Donald Trump hurling insults, a large field of Republican presidential hopefuls veered Wednesday night between petty squabbling and serious debate, staking sharp differences over immigration, foreign policy and a threatened government shutdown.
Trump, the leader in opinion polls and a driving force in the race since his June entry, set the tone from virtually the first moment when he leveled an attack, apropos of nothing, on Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, mocking his paltry support.
“He’s got 1%!” Trump exclaimed, suggesting Paul’s standing in polls meant he had no place among the 11 candidates onstage at the Reagan Presidential Library.
Paul responded by questioning Trump’s temperament, suggesting it made him unfit to serve as commander in chief. “I think his response, his visceral response is to attack people on their appearance,” Paul said. “Short, tall, fat, ugly. My goodness, that happened in junior high. Are we not way above that?”
The answer, over a nearly three-hour session in Simi Valley, was mixed.
The debate did reveal some meaningful differences among the candidates on substantive issues.
One of the starkest divides emerged over foreign policy, after businesswoman Carly Fiorina suggested President Obama had spent too much time negotiating with Russian President Vladimir Putin. She said that as president she would stop talking and immediately beef up the U.S. military and send troops to Europe to signal a harder line.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich said it was important, however, for the U.S. to strengthen its alliances around the world, rather than taking unilateral action, a notion seconded by Paul. “Carly Fiorina … said we’re not going to talk with Putin,” Paul said. “Think if Reagan said that during the Cold War.”
The candidates also divided over a threat to shut down the federal government in a dispute over funding Planned Parenthood.
The organization receives hundreds of millions of federal dollars to pay for healthcare programs for women. Though it is forbidden from using that money to provide abortions, activists have targeted the group after a secretly recorded videotape surfaced showing leaders of the organization discussing the use of fetal tissue for research.
“I would encourage every American to watch those videos,” said Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, a leading proponent of a government shutdown if necessary.
But Kasich argued the move would inevitably fail and backfire politically. “We have to be very careful about that,” Kasich said. “The American people are going to shake their heads … and say, ‘What’s the story with these Republicans?’”
On immigration, Trump reiterated his plan to build a wall along the border with Mexico and his desire to round up and deport the estimated 11 million people in the country without legal documentation. “It can be done with proper management and it can be done with heart,” he said.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush offered a different view.
“We’re at a crossroads right now,” he said. “Are we going to take the Reagan approach — the hopeful, optimistic approach that says that you come to our country legally, you pursue your dreams ... you create opportunity for all of us? Or the Donald Trump approach? The approach that says everything is bad, everything is coming to an end?”
Coaxed by CNN’s Jake Tapper, one of the debate moderators, the candidates spent considerable time responding face-to-face to some of Trump’s earlier provocations.
Bush asked him to apologize for dragging his wife into the debate over immigration by suggesting he was soft on those in the country illegally because Bush’s wife was born in Mexico. Trump declined, though he called her “a lovely woman.”
Fiorina stared coldly ahead as Trump sought to explain away comments he made in a recent Rolling Stone interview disparaging her looks. He insisted afterward that he was referring to her persona.
“I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said,” Fiorina stated.
“I think she’s got a beautiful face,” Trump replied. “And I think she’s a beautiful woman.”
Fiorina was unmoved.
The only woman in the field, Fiorina was invited onto the prime-time stage largely on the strength of her performance in August’s undercard debate, and made the most of her opportunity, being a forceful presence throughout the evening.
Trump, by contrast, disappeared during long stretches when the discussion turned to policy, and appeared to wilt as the marathon session wore on.
With so many candidates crowding the stage, the debate ranged over a wide variety of subjects and shifted in tone as candidates either ignored or engaged with Trump.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants, leaped into the discussion when it turned to Trump’s belittling of Bush, who is bilingual, for speaking Spanish on the campaign trail.
Rubio said the best way to lure immigrants to the Republican Party is by touting the virtues of free enterprise and limited government, adding: “And if they get their news in Spanish, I want them to get that directly from me, not from a translator on Univision.”
There were other areas of polite disagreement.
Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee talked up their flat-tax proposals, while Trump defended the progressive tax system requiring the rich to pay more.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker opposed a boost in the federal minimum wage, while Carson offered qualified support.
The most sparks were struck, though, during the personal exchanges, including a moment when Trump challenged Fiorina over her firing after a stormy tenure as chief executive at Hewlett-Packard, which included massive layoffs.
“She can’t run any of my companies, that I can tell you!” Trump said.
Fiorina shot back that Trump had filed for bankruptcy multiple times to bail out of troubled investments in the gaming industry, and challenged him: “Why should we trust you to manage the finances of this nation any differently than you managed the finances of your casinos?”
They bickered until New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie interrupted them, admonishing that most voters had more important things to worry about. “Stop playing the games,” he chided. “Stop this childish back-and-forth between the two of you.”
Bush and Trump, the night’s main antagonists, later tangled over the legacy of Bush’s brother, former President George W. Bush. As Trump discussed his own opposition to the Iraq war, Bush said he lacked judgment and an “understanding of how the world works.”
Trump shot back: “Your brother and your brother’s administration gave us Barack Obama, because it was such a disaster, those last three months, that Abraham Lincoln couldn’t get elected.”
“He kept us safe,” Bush responded, drawing a roar of approval from the audience.
“I don’t know,” Trump countered. “You feel safe right now? I don’t feel safe.”
Given the extraordinarily large number of candidates, a form of crowd control was imposed on Wednesday’s marquee event.
The field was split in two, based on opinion polls, with the four candidates furthest back relegated to a warm-up debate before the other contenders took center stage.
Those also-rans — South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, former New York Gov. George Pataki and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum — covered much the same ground as the prime-time debaters, parsing their differences over such issues as taxes, immigration and the Syrian refugee crisis. They also trained their fire on Trump, under Tapper’s leading questions.
Asked to square his harsh attacks on the business tycoon with the dictum Reagan promoted — that one should speak no ill of a fellow Republican — Jindal shot back he would, hypothetically, endorse Trump as the GOP nominee if he were a true conservative and not “a narcissist who only believes in himself.”
“He’s not a conservative,” Jindal said. “He’s not a liberal. He’s not a Democrat. He’s not a Republican. He’s not an independent. He believes in Donald Trump.”
Times staff writers Kurtis Lee and Chris Megerian contributed to this report.