Seventh Republican debate: Candidates tangle over Islamic State and immigration in Trump's absence

Republican debate takeaways: Donald Trump was mostly a target for jokes

 (Charlie Neibergall / Associated Press)
(Charlie Neibergall / Associated Press)

Thursday’s GOP debate was the final forum before the Iowa caucuses on Monday. No candidate stood out far enough to shift the contest. But all tried to take advantage of the absence of front-runner Donald Trump, whose outsized personality has dominated the campaign. What we noticed:

A few jokes about Donald Trump, but he was mostly ignored

The candidates resisted the chance to pile on Trump, who skipped the debate over a tiff with Fox News. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who is fighting with Trump for supremacy in Iowa, set the tone early with his best attempt at Borscht Belt humor.

"Let me say, I'm a maniac and everyone on this stage is stupid, fat and ugly. And Ben, you're a terrible surgeon," he said to Ben Carson. “Now that we’ve got the Donald Trump portion of the debate out of the way..."

Thank you, ladies and gentlemen. Please, try the veal.

What did the San Bernardino attackers' neighbors see? It's more complicated than Megyn Kelly described

 (Charlie Neibergall / Associated Press)
(Charlie Neibergall / Associated Press)

In an exchange over national security between Fox News moderator Megyn Kelly and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie during Thursday's debate, Kelly insisted that "neighbors" did not want to be accused of profiling the San Bernardino attackers and remained quiet about suspicious behavior. 

"Neighbors of the terrorists said that they did not report the couple to law enforcement prior to the crime because they were afraid that they would be accused of profiling," Kelly said in a question posed to Christie. 

She added, "Neighbors said they saw men going in and out of the garage. They saw packages being delivered. They saw Muslims, and they did not think that was enough to call the cops." 

That's not entirely accurate. 

In an interview with The Times, a neighbor of the killers, Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, said she told the FBI that the couple had at least five packages delivered in the days before the shooting, and several sat in a pile on their doorstep. She said she had no reason to consider it suspicious.

“What would you report? Other than he has a long beard, wears regular clothes and works in the garage?” said the neighbor, Annie Frost, who lived next door to the couple. 

Fox News did publish a story based on a local news report that cited an interview with a neighbor of Farook's mother. That neighbor had overheard from another neighbor that "suspicious" activity was occurring but was not reported because the neighbor did not want to be perceived as profiling. 

Trump dominates #GOPDebate conversation on Twitter

Despite his absence from the Republican debate stage, Donald Trump, once again, garnered the most attention on Twitter.

Facebook's initial data doesn't include where the Trump discussion stood in comparison to the other candidates. Here's how those on stage ranked:

1. Ted Cruz (41%)

2. Marco Rubio (18%)

3. Rand Paul (15%)

4. Ben Carson (10%)

5. Chris Christie (8%)

6. Jeb Bush (5%)

7. John Kasich (3%)

Rand Paul talks Bill Clinton, Monica Lewinsky

 (Scott Olson / Getty Images)
(Scott Olson / Getty Images)

Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky said he doesn’t usually talk about former President Bill Clinton’s character unless asked. But when prompted at Thursday’s debate, he was happy to jump into the crowd of Republicans who have assailed Clinton’s past marital infidelities, including with a White House intern, Monica Lewinsky.

"If what Bill Clinton did any CEO in our country did with an intern, with a 22-year-old, 21-year old intern in their office, they would be fired," Paul said. "They would never be hired again."

The line drew strong applause from the audience gathered at the Iowa Events Center in Des Moines.

Paul also noted “the millions and millions of dollars” the Clintons have taken, an apparent reference to the family’s charitable foundation, from regimes in the Middle East who “treat women like cattle.”

In recent weeks Hillary Clinton, the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, has said if she is elected president her husband would have some sort of role in her administration. 

As usual, Trump gets interrupted by protesters

Donald Trump held a competing event elsewhere in Des Moines on Thursday night after dropping out of the Fox News presidential debate. In a scene that's become typical of his campaign stops, the New York businessman was interrupted by protesters, who were swiftly marched out.

Republicans scramble to sound tough on terrorism

 (Chris Carlson / Associated Press)
(Chris Carlson / Associated Press)

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio cast his fellow senators as weak in the fight against Islamic State, as several candidates jostled to gain an edge on foreign policy during Thursday's debate.

“The only budget that Ted [Cruz] has ever voted for is a budget that Rand Paul sponsored that brags about cutting defense spending,” Rubio said after Cruz called for carpet-bombing that would “utterly and completely destroy" Islamic State.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, in turn, attacked both Rubio and Cruz for not backing a Senate vote to authorize military force against the extremist group.

“They had a chance to show support, and it wasn’t popular at the time,” Bush said. “It became popular after the attack Paris, and San Bernardino. Now we hear the tough talk.”

Tough rhetoric was abundant, with Rubio repeatedly raising his voice and jabbing his finger in the air as he implied that rough interrogations were necessary. “If we capture any of these ISIS killers alive,” he said, using an alternate name for Islamic State, “they are going to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and we’re going to find out everything they know.”

He went on to defend his call for closing mosques where jihadist violence is fomented, drawing a rebuke from Paul. “That’s a huge mistake to be closing down mosques,” Paul said.

Paul assailed Rubio for rejecting his Senate amendment to ensure tougher scrutiny of foreign students and refugees as part of Rubio’s bill to “give citizenship to those who came here illegally.”

“I just don’t think Marco can have it both ways,” Paul said. “You can’t be in favor of defending us against … radical Islam if you’re not for border security.”

GOP candidates clash over who's toughest on illegal immigration

One question has tripped up Republican candidates more than any other: Who will be toughest on illegal immigration?

Donald Trump has claimed Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas is for "amnesty" -- and vice versa. Both have criticized Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who has gone after Cruz.

Jeb Bush piled on Thursday, saying Rubio "cut and run" after leading the Senate's "Gang of Eight" immigration bill "because it wasn't popular."

"You used to support a path to citizenship," Rubio snapped.

"So did you," Bush shot back.

All the GOP candidates promise to end illegal immigration, but what to do with those here illegally?

Trump says that the estimated 11 million here illegally "have to go" and that he would set up a special federal force to accomplish the task, while Cruz says he's not going "to send jackboots to knock on your door and every door in America."

Rubio said Thursday he's not going to "round up 12 million" immigrants.

Cruz continued to be attacked over an amendment he offered in a Senate committee to the Gang of Eight immigration reform bill, which Rubio co-sponsored. Cruz's proposal would have boosted immigration.

Cruz's amendment was never expected to pass the committee. He now calls it a "poison pill" designed to derail the broader bill, while Rubio insists it was a real proposal.

"This is the lie that Ted's campaign is built on -- that he's the most conservative guy," Rubio said at Thursday's debate. "The truth is, Ted, throughout this campaign, you've been willing to say or do anything to get votes."

"I like Marco, he's very charming, very smooth," Cruz responded. "Marco made the choice to go the direction of the major donors to support amnesty because he thought it was politically advantageous."

Actually, it was a little of both. Cruz in 2013 was having it both ways: He could claim to be for immigration reform -- as the GOP was more supportive of the issue at the time -- but vote against the bill because his idea wasn't included.

Cruz now says Trump is the one backing "amnesty," because Trump wants to let the "really good people" who are currently in the country without legal authorization return to the U.S. after they are deported.

"People that have come into our country illegally, they have to go," Trump said during the GOP debate in Las Vegas in December. "They have to come back in through a legal process."

That's often referred to as a touch-back provision, which would require those here illegally to return to their home country and apply again to reenter.

Cruz calls it "amnesty."

Despite skipping GOP debate, Donald Trump still the center of attention

 (Chris Carlson / Associated Press)
(Chris Carlson / Associated Press)

Donald Trump, despite not attending Thursday night’s GOP debate, still dominated the opening moments of the final clash four days before Iowans head to the first-in-the-nation caucuses.

Fox News debate co-moderator Megyn Kelly, the target of Trump’s ire, kicked off the debate by asking Texas Sen. Ted Cruz about “the elephant not in the room tonight.”

“Let me say, I’m a maniac and everyone on this stage is stupid, fat and ugly, and Ben [Carson], you’re a terrible surgeon,” Cruz joked, repeating some real insults Trump has thrown at the rest of the field and some fictitious ones. “Now that we’ve gotten the Donald Trump portion out of the way, I want to thank everyone here for showing the men and women of Iowa the respect to show up and make the case to the people of this state and the people of this country why each of us believe we would make the best commander-in-chief.”

For months, Cruz praised Trump until the businessman started attacking him once the two became locked in a tight battle for first place in Iowa. Then Cruz started portraying him as a liberal with “New York values.” Kelly asked which portrayal was accurate.

“If Donald engages in insults or anybody else, I don’t intend to reciprocate. I have not insulted Donald personally and I don’t intend to,” Cruz said. “I am glad Donald is running. I’m glad. He has produced enormous enthusiasm, and every Donald Trump voter or potential Donald Trump voter, I hope to earn your support.”

I am not the candidate of career politicians in Washington. 

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, speaking during Thursday night's debate. He's banking on his image as an outsider of sorts in Washington to win Monday's Iowa caucuses.

Chris Christie opposes profiling, putting him at odds with Donald Trump

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie argued during Thursday night's debate that profiling is an unnecessary tool to combat terrorism in the U.S. -- a position that puts him in stark contrast to GOP front-runner Donald Trump. 

"What people should do is use their common sense," said Christie. "You see something that’s suspicious, you call law enforcement. … That can be done without you profiling." 

Trump, who skipped the debate, called for a ban on all Muslims entering the country after the San Bernardino attack. Moreover, he says more profiling of Muslims should be conducted in an effort to fight terrorism. 

Republican candidates keep labeling Obamacare a 'job killer.' It still isn't one.

Sen. Ted Cruz was given the chance during Thursday’s debate to whack Obamacare, a pet target of Republicans for years, and he unleashed a flurry of claims about the law’s negative effects.

“Millions of Americans have lost their jobs, have been forced into part-time work, have lost their health insurance, have lost their jobs, have seen their premiums skyrocket,” Cruz said, before advocating for a plan that, he said, would not rely on “top-down” healthcare administration.

But, as The Times’ Noam N. Levey noted during a previous GOP debate, there is little evidence of such an economic downturn. In fact, the private sector has consistently added jobs since Obama signed the law in 2010.

Fox News responds to Trump

 (Jennifer S. Altman / For The Times)
(Jennifer S. Altman / For The Times)

A statement from a Fox News representative:

Roger Ailes had three brief conversations with Donald Trump today about possibly appearing at the debate – there were not multiple calls placed by Ailes to Trump.

In the course of those conversations, we acknowledged his concerns about a satirical observation we made in order to quell the attacks on Megyn Kelly, and prevent her from being smeared any further. Furthermore, Trump offered to appear at the debate upon the condition that Fox News contribute $5 million to his charities. We explained that was not possible and we could not engage in a quid pro quo, nor could any money change hands for any reason. In the last 48 hours, we've kept two issues at the forefront — we would never compromise our journalistic standards and we would always stand by our journalist, Megyn Kelly. We have accomplished those two goals and we are pleased with the outcome. We're very proud to have her on stage as a debate moderator alongside Bret Baier & Chris Wallace.

Rand Paul and government surveillance -- still going

Federal government surveillance may not be tops on the minds of Americans, but it's always front and center for Rand Paul.

The senator from Kentucky leads the Republican candidates in efforts stop the government from spying on U.S. citizens and insisted during Thursday's debate that the bulk collection of Americans' data did not stop any terrorist attacks.

Paul brought the Senate to a standstill last year with a quasi-filibuster against allowing a phone data collection program to continue with reforms.

The changes represented the first major overhaul to the spy program after former government contractor Edward Snowden disclosed it.

But Paul believed the reforms didn't go far enough to protect privacy.

Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, meanwhile, broke with Paul to vote for the bill. It passed. And the spy program continued, with new limits.

Ted Cruz asked about carpet bombing ISIS -- again

 (Chris Carlson / Associated Press)
(Chris Carlson / Associated Press)

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz was asked at the Thursday night debate about his past promise to "carpet bomb" Islamic State terrorists. 

It's not the first time he's discussed the issue . 

The Times' Chris Megerian wrote about Cruz's position when he was asked about it in a December debate. 

Watching the #GOPDebate? Here's what you should know

Ahead of Thursday's debate, our politics team answered some crucial questions. Here's the rundown:

I've had more 2 a.m. phone calls than everyone here put together.

Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, saying he is the most fit candidate to be president.

Marco Rubio goes for the backhanded compliment of Donald Trump

He's an entertaining guy. He's the greatest show on Earth.

Marco Rubio on Donald Trump

Donald Trump is missing from the debate, but his zingers are still present

I'm a maniac and everyone on this stage is stupid, fat and ugly. And Ben, you're a terrible surgeon. Now that we've gotten the Donald Trump portion out of the way.

Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, opening the Republican debate with an immediate attack on the absent front-runner, Donald Trump

Donald Trump on Fox News debate: 'They want me there badly'

Minutes before the main Republican debate Thursday night, Donald Trump said host Fox News apologized to him and urged him to give up on his plans to skip the debate. 

"They called me just now," said Trump in an interview on CNN aboard his personal plane, which had just arrived in Des Moines for a fundraiser for veterans he was to attend instead. "They want me there very badly."

Trump declined to name who at Fox News offered the apology.

The billionaire businessman and front-runner for the GOP presidential race has said he was skipping the debate because the network mocked him for challenging the credibility of anchor Megyn Kelly, who will moderate the main debate.

“I'm not a person who respects Megyn Kelly very much," he noted in the interview. The two clashed in the initial debate in August when Kelly pressed Trump on derogatory statements he's made about women.