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GOP Debate Filled With Tough Exchanges Between Trump And Cruz


You noticed some differences in last night's Republican presidential debate in Charleston, S.C. Fewer candidates were on the main stage, which gave everyone a little more time to talk. The stakes seemed to be growing because Iowa and New Hampshire are getting so close. And Donald Trump and Ted Cruz no longer seem to be getting along. Here's NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: As Donald Trump put it in the spin room after the debate, I guess the bromance is over. For months, he and Ted Cruz had acted like frenemies. Cruz, in particular, was careful not to alienate Trump's supporters even after Trump began suggesting that Cruz was constitutionally barred from being president because he was born in Canada. But last night, Cruz, a former Princeton debater and Supreme Court litigator, came prepared for a brawl.


TED CRUZ: You know, back in September, my friend, Donald, said that he had had his lawyers look at this from every which way, and there was no issue there. There was nothing to this birther issue.


CRUZ: Now since September, the Constitution hasn't changed.


CRUZ: But the poll numbers have.

LIASSON: Trump actually admitted that Cruz's rise in the polls had motivated his birther innuendos.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Why are you raising this issue now?

DONALD TRUMP: Because now he's doing a little bit better. No, I didn't care before. It's true. No, it's true. Hey, look, he never had a chance. Now he's doing better. He's got probably a 4 or 5 percent chance.

LIASSON: The Trump-Cruz rivalry was so aggressive, the other candidates were left searching for opportunities to force their way into the scrum.


MARCO RUBIO: Because I was invoked in that question, so let me just throw in that answer. Let me say a - the real question here - I hate to interrupt this episode of Court TV.

LIASSON: Marco Rubio has managed to make the most of the previous debates, but last night, the spotlight stayed on Cruz and Trump. Cruz was asked about a story in The New York Times that he had failed to tell the Federal Election Commission about a low interest loan his wife got from her employer, the Wall Street investment firm Goldman Sachs. Cruz had disclosed the loan publicly on his Senate finance form, and he called the article a hit piece, happily taking aim at a news outlet many conservatives considered to be the epitome of mainstream media elitism.


CRUZ: And yes, I made a paperwork error disclosing it on one piece of paper instead of the other. But if that's the best hit the New York Times has got, they better go back to the well.

LIASSON: On the campaign trail, Cruz has accused Trump of having New York values, a not-so-subtle message to conservative Christians in Iowa that Trump is not one of them. The New York-based Fox moderators invited him to spell out what he meant.


CRUZ: Everyone understands that the values in New York City are socially liberal or pro-abortion or pro-gay marriage, focused around money and the media. And I guess I can frame it another way. Not a lot of conservatives come out of Manhattan, I'm just saying.

LIASSON: That was a clear dig at Trump, who had raised questions about Cruz's faith by saying in exactly the same way that not a lot of evangelicals come out of Cuba. The Republican primary battle has turned into a circular firing squad with attacks and counterattacks coming from all directions. Jeb Bush attacked Trump for his ban on Muslim immigrants, Rubio and Cruz continued their fight over taxes and immigration, and Rubio took on Chris Christie.


RUBIO: Gov. Christie has endorsed many of the ideas that Barack Obama supports, whether it's Common Core or gun control or the appointment of Sonia Sotomayor or the donation he made to Planned Parenthood.



CHRIS CHRISTIE: I stood on the stage and watched Marco, and rather indignantly, look at Gov. Bush and say, someone told you that because we're running for the same office that criticizing me will get you to that office. It appears that the same someone's been whispering in old Marco's ear, too.

LIASSON: This was the week that the civil war inside the Republican Party flared up again after South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who was in the audience last night, criticized Trump indirectly saying Republicans should resist, quote, "the siren call of the angriest voices." Asked about that last night, Trump, as usual, doubled down.


TRUMP: I'm very angry because our country is being run horribly, and I will gladly accept the mantle of anger.


TRUMP: Our military is a disaster. Our health care is a horror show. Obamacare, 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.


TRUMP: And yes, I am angry.

LIASSON: Last night's debate probably did little to change the current dynamic of the Republican race. The two anti-establishment populists are still the leaders, and the Republican mainstream has yet to coalesce around an alternative. More and more Republican leaders are trying to wrap their minds around the possibility that Donald Trump or Ted Cruz could end up as the GOP nominee. Mara Liasson, NPR News, Charleston, S.C. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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.