By Chelsea Schilling and Garth Kant
In an epic eligibility face-off, Republican candidates Donald Trump and Ted Cruz went head to head over whether Cruz is eligible to be president during a pivotal GOP debate held less than three weeks before the first votes of the 2016 election season.
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The two leading contenders have been locked in a war of words after Trump questioned Cruz's eligibility to be president, saying it's a "very precarious" issue because the Texas senator was born in Alberta, Canada, to an America mother and Cuban father. Cruz gave up any claim to Canadian citizenship in 2014.
Thursday evening, Cruz fought back, even insisting Trump wouldn't be eligible for the presidency under his own interpretation of the Constitution.
Fox Business Network anchor Neil Cavuto asked Cruz about the brewing controversy
The senator made light of it by beginning, "I'm glad we are focusing on the important topics of the evening," which drew laughs then sustained cheers and applause.
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"Back in September, my friend Donald said he'd had his lawyers look at this from every which way and there was no issue there. There was nothing to this birther issue."
Trump smiled, and the crowd laughed and applauded a bit.
"Now," continued Cruz, "since September, the Constitution hasn't changed."
Again he paused for laughs.
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"But the poll numbers have." Cruz again paused for applause and some hoots and hollers.
"And I recognize that Donald is dismayed that his poll numbers are falling in Iowa."
As Trump then smiled mockingly and began shaking his head, Cruz continued, "But the facts and the law here are really quite clear. Under longstanding U.S. law, the child of a U.S. citizen born abroad is a natural-born citizen. If a soldier has a child abroad, that child is a natural-born citizen. That's why John McCain, even though he was born in Panama, was eligible to run for president."
Cruz then aimed an arrow he had held in reserve for just this moment.
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"I would note that the birther theories that Donald has been relying on, some of the more extreme ones insist that you must not only be born on U.S. soil, but have two parents born on U.S. soil, and under that theory, not only would I be disqualified, Marco Rubio would be disqualified, Bobby Jindal would be disqualified, and, interestingly enough, Donald J. Trump would be disqualified."
"Because Donald's mother was born in Scotland. She was naturalized."
Cruz then turned directly to Trump and said, "now, Donald … "
But Trump interjected, "But I was born here. Big difference."
Cruz pressed on, "On the issue of citizenship, Donald, I'm not going to use your mother's birth against you."
"Because it wouldn't work," Trump fired back.
"You're an American," continued Cruz, "as is everybody else on this stage, and I would suggest we focus on who's best prepared to be commander in chief. Because that's the most important question facing the country."
Trump responded by first pointing to an NBC poll that he said showed "Trump way up, Cruz going down."
When the crowd booed, Trump quipped, "They don't like the Wall Street Journal; they don't like NBC. But I like the poll."
"In Iowa now, as you know, Ted, in the last three polls I'm beating you. ...
"Number two, this isn't me saying it. I don't care. I think I'm going to win fair and square and I don't have to win this way. [Law professor] Laurence Tribe of Harvard said there is a serious question as to whether he can do this, OK?
"There are other attorneys that feel this, and very, very fine constitutional attorneys, feel that because he was not born on the land he cannot run for office.
"Here's the problem. We're running. He does great. I win. I choose him as my vice presidential candidate and the Democrats sue because we can't take him along for the ride. I don't like that, OK?"
"The fact is, and, if for some reason he beats the rest of the field," Trump then paused to address a chorus of boos, remarking, "See? They don't like that. They don't like that he beats the rest of the field because they want me."
"But," he continued, "if for some reason he beats the rest of the field, I already know the Democrats are going to be bringing a suit. You have a big lawsuit over your head while you're running and you become the nominee who the hell knows if you can even serve in office?"
"So, you should go out, get a declaratory judgment. Let the courts decide and you shouldn't have mentioned the polls because I would have been much different."
Cavuto asked Trump why he was raising the issue now.
"Because now he's doing a little bit better," explained Trump with a shrug of the shoulder that suggested the answer should be obvious. "It's true. Hey look, he never had a chance. Now he's doing better. He's got probably a four or five percent chance."
On the split screen, Cruz smiled then laughed. Trump smirked then smiled broadly.
Trump pressed on, "The fact is there's a big overhang. There's a big question mark on your head. And you can't do that to the party. You really can't. You can't do that to the party. You have to have certainty. Even if it was a one-percent chance, and it's far greater than one percent. Because he wasn't born ... I mean you have great constitutional lawyers who say you can't run."
"I'm not bringing a suit, I promise. But the Democrats are going to bring a lawsuit. And you have to have certainty. You can't have a question over your head."
Cruz responded, "Well listen, I've spent my entire life defending the Constitution before the U.S. Supreme Court and I'll tell you, I'm not going to be taking legal advice from Donald Trump."
"You don't have to," shot back Trump. "Take it from Laurence Tribe. Take it from your own professors."
Cruz replied, "The chances of any litigation succeeding on this are zero."
"That's wrong!" complained Trump.
Cruz kept going, "Now Mr. Trump is very focused on Larry Tribe. Let me tell you who Larry Tribe is. He's a left-wing judicial activist Harvard Law professor who was Al Gore's lawyer in Bush vs. Gore. He's a major Hillary Clinton supporter. And there's a reason why Hillary's supporters are echoing Donald's attacks on me."
"He's not the only one," interjected Trump. "There are many lawyers."
Seeming to lose patience and showing what at first looked like a flash of anger, Cruz instead made light of the argument and offered, "I'll tell you what, you very kindly just a moment ago offered me the VP slot. I'll tell you what, if all this works out, I'm happy to consider naming you as VP and so if you happen to be right you could get the top job at the end of the day."
Pausing for the laughter and applause to die down, Trump responded, "No, no. I like that. I'd like to consider it, but I think I'll go back to building buildings if it doesn't work out."
Then Florida Sen. Marco Rubio – who has faced questions about his own eligibility because his parents were Cuban citizens – interrupted the exchange to change the subject.
Seven GOP candidates are in North Charleston, South Carolina, Thursday for a high-stakes debate before the Iowa caucuses are held on Feb. 1. The prime-time event began at 9 p.m. EST and is hosted by Fox Business Network. Viewers can watch the debate on the Fox Business Network, by livestream on FoxBusiness.com or on the Fox News app.
The top-polling candidates on the main debate stage include Trump, Cruz, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Ohio Gov. John Kasich. Fox Business Network anchors Neil Cavuto and Maria Bartiromo moderated the debate.
'10 American sailors on their knees'
The very first question of the evening was about jobs and the unemployment rate, but a grave Cruz took the opportunity to first sternly reprimand Obama on a foreign-policy controversy clearly agitating the senator.
"Today, many of us picked up our newspapers and were horrified to the see the sight of 10 American sailors on their knees with their hands on their heads," he said. "In that State of the Union (address) President Obama didn't so much as mention the 10 sailors that had been captured by Iran.
"President Obama is preparing to send $100 billion, or more, to Ayatollah Khameini. And, I'll tell you, it was heartbreaking. But the good news is, the next commander in chief is standing on this stage."
Cruz paused for a round of cheers and applause before concluding, "And I give you my word, if I am elected president, no service man or service woman will be forced to be on their knees in any nation that captures our fighting men and women, and it will feel the full force and fury of the United States of America."
Hillary a 'national security disaster'
Bush bluntly warned, "Hillary Clinton would be a national security disaster."
"Think about it, she wants to continue down the path of Iran, Benghazi, the Russian re-set, Dodd-Frank, all the things that have gone wrong in this country," he said. "She would be a national security mess.
"Here's the problem if she gets elected," he summed up, "she's under the investigation of the FBI right now. If she gets elected, in her first 100 days, instead of setting an agenda she might be going back and forth between the White House and the court house. We need to stop that."
Rubio then added, "I would go one step further in this description of Hillary Clinton. She wouldn't be just a disaster."
He flatly stated, "Hillary Clinton is disqualified from being commander in chief of the United States."
"Someone who cannot handle intelligence information appropriately cannot be commander in chief," then, voice rising, added, "and someone who lies to the families of those four victims in Benghazi can never be president of the United States."
That declaration was met with wild cheers from the audience.
Trump represents 'New York values'
Cruz was asked what he meant when he said Trump represented "New York values."
He responded, "You know, I think most people know exactly what New York values are."
Bartiromo said she was from New York and suggested she was still unclear.
"You're from New York so you might not," Cruz deadpanned. "But I promise you, in the state of South Carolina, they do."
That was met an enthusiastic round of applause as well as laughter.
"Listen, there are many. many wonderful working men and women in the state of New York. But everyone understands that the values in New York City are socially liberal, are pro-abortion or pro-gay marriage. Focus around money and the media."
"The reason I said that is that I was asked, my friend Donald has taken to, at his events, playing Bruce Springsteen's 'Born in the USA.' And I was asked what I thought of that and I said, 'Well, if he wanted to play a song maybe he could play, 'New York, New York.'
"The concept of New York values is not that complicated to figure out. Not too many years ago, Donald did a long interview with Tim Russert. And in that interview he explained his views on a whole host of issues that were very, very different from the views he's describing now. And his explanation, he said, 'Look, I'm from New York. That's what we believe in New York. Those aren't Iowa values but this is what we believe in New York.'
"So that was his explanation. And I guess I can frame it another way. Not a lot of conservatives come out of Manhattan. I'm just sayin," he added with a shrug of the shoulders.
"So," responded Trump, "conservatives actually do come out of Manhattan. Including William F. Buckley and others, just so you understand. Because he [Cruz] insulted a lot of people, I've had more calls on that statement. New York is a great place. It's got great people. It's got loving people. Wonderful people."
Trump then played his 9/11 card.
"When the World Trade Center came down, I saw something that no place on Earth could have handled more beautifully, more humanely than New York."
Cruz joined in the applause for that line.
"You had two 110-story buildings come crashing down. I saw them come down. And the cleanup started the next day and it was the most horrific cleanup probably in the history of doing this, and in construction. I was down there. And I've never seen anything like it. And the people in New York fought and fought and fought. We saw more death and even the smell of death. Nobody understood it. And it was with us for months. The smell was in the air. And everybody in the world watched and everybody in the world loved New York and loved New Yorkers.
"And I have to tell you, that was a very insulting statement that Ted made."
'No turning back for America'
Asked to explain his criticism of Christie as too liberal, Rubio starkly declared, "Let me tell you, if we don't get this election right, there my be no turning back for America."
"We are on the verge of being the first generation of Americans that leave our children worse off than ourselves. And so I truly with all my heart believe, like everyone else on this stage, no one is a socialist, no one here in under FBI investigation, so we are a good group of people..'
"Is he [Christie] a liberal?" Cavuto interjected.
"Unfortunately, Governor Christie has endorsed many of the ideas Barack Obama supports, whether its Common Core or gun control or the appointment of (Supreme Court Justice) Sotomayor or the donation he made to Planned Parenthood. Our next president and our nominee cannot be someone who supports those positions."
Christie responded, "Let's set the facts straight, I didn't support Sotomayor. Secondly, I never wrote a check to Planned Parenthood."
He then listed gun-control measures he has vetoed.
'I'm angry because our country is a mess'
Trump was asked his reaction to the barbs South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley directed at him about immigrants during her the State of the Union response and if she was out of line by referring to the "siren call of the angriest voices."
Trump began by insisting he was friends with Haley.
"But she did say there was anger. And I could say, 'Oh, I'm not angry.'
"I'm very angry. Because our country is being run horribly. And I will gladly accept the mantle of anger. Our military is a disaster. Our health care a horror show. Obama – we're going to repeal it and replace it. We have no borders. Our vets are being treated horribly. Illegal immigration is beyond belief. Our country is being run by incompetent people. And yes, I am angry."
"I won't be angry when we fix it. But until we fix it, I am very, very angry. And I say that to Nikki. So, when Nikki said that, I wasn't offended. She said the truth.
"One of you colleagues interviewed me and said 'She said you were angry,' and I said to myself, 'Huh, She's right!' I'm not fighting that. I didn't find it offensive at all.
"I am angry because our country is a mess."
GOP undercard debate
FBN hosted an earlier undercard debate at 6 p.m. EST featuring former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Sen. Rick Santorum.
During that debate, Fiorina ripped Hillary Clinton, saying, unlike her, "I actually love spending time with my husband."
"You know, I’m not a political insider," Fiorina said. "I haven't spent my lifetime running for office. The truth is I've had and been blessed by a lot of opportunities to do a lot of things in my life and unlike another woman in this race I actually love spending time with my husband."
She continued, "Clinton sits inside government and rakes in millions, handing out access and favors, and Donald Trump sits outside government and rakes in billions buying people like Hillary Clinton."
The candidates were asked about Obama's executive actions on gun control and why they believe Obama's proposal is a problem.
"It's yet another lawless executive order," Fiorina said, adding that the president has just decided to override Congress and doesn't do enough to enforce current gun laws.
"There are criminals running around with guns, and we don't prosecute them. Less than 1 percent," she said.
Huckabee said Obama's orders are unconstitutional and "completely insane."
To keep gun violence down, he suggested: "Why don't we start by making sure the Justice Department never does another program like Fast and Furious?"
Huckabee said, despite what Obama claims, there is no "gun show loophole." He accused Obama of "pushing ideas that have never worked."
Huckabee faulted gun-free zones for preventing law-abiding citizens who carry concealed firearms from stopping gun violence.
On the issue of America's critical infrastructure being vulnerable to terror attack, Santorum warned, "The most devastating attack that could occur would be an electromagnetic pulse attack, which could occur after a nuclear weapon is detonated over the nation."
He said there's a bill in Congress to harden the infrastructure against attack on the electrical grid.
"[Obama] has nothing to try to defend us, particularly with our electric grid," Santorum charged.
He added that "America must stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon."