Republican presidential hopefuls hit out at Donald Trump in debate

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump (centre) speaking as Ben Carson (left) and US Senator Ted Cruz listen during the CNN Republican presidential debate on Dec 15, 2015.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump (centre) speaking as Ben Carson (left) and US Senator Ted Cruz listen during the CNN Republican presidential debate on Dec 15, 2015.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON -  Billionaire Donald Trump came under fire from the rest of the field for his proposed Muslim ban at the Republican presidential debate on Tuesday night (Dec 15) as establishment favourites put up their strongest showing of the debate season so far.

Former Florida governor Jeb Bush – who had become something of the forgotten man of the campaign – led the attacks against Mr Trump, accusing him again and again of not being a serious candidate.

“This is not a serious proposal,” he said when asked about Mr Trump’s contentious suggestion. “In fact, it will push the Muslim world, the Arab world away from us at a time when we need to re-engage with them to be able to create a strategy to destroy ISIS.”

“So Donald, you know, is great at - 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,” said Mr Bush.

Others, like Senator Rand Paul, Ohio Governor John Kasich and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie all took either direct or veiled attacks at the proposal, put forward by Mr Trump after the shootings in San Bernardino, California that left 14 people dead.

The shooters - US-born Syed Rizwan Farook and his Pakistan-born wife Tashfeen Malik - were said to have been inspired by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). 

Even Senator Ted Cruz, who had thus far refrained from criticising Mr Trump publicly, said that he would not support the measure.

“There are millions of peaceful Muslims across the world, in countries like India, where there is not the problem we are seeing in nations that … have territory controlled by Al-Qaeda or ISIS, and we should direct at the problem, focus on the problem, and defeat radical Islamic terrorism. It's not a war on a faith; it's a war on a political and theocratic ideology that seeks to murder us,” he said.

Mr Trump, on his part, defended his ban, as well as his other similarly inflammatory suggestion  that the families of the terrorists be killed as well.

“We are not talking about isolation. We're talking about security. We're not talking about religion. We're talking about security. Our country is out of control,” he said.

Still, in a rare departure for the Republican debates, Mr Trump was not the centre of attention. In fact it was the likes of Mr Cruz – who is surging in the polls – Mr Rubio and Mr Bush that had the strongest moments.

As a result, this was one of the most substantive Republican debates yet as the different candidates discussed genuine policy differences when it came to issues like immigration and foreign policy.

It was a night when Mr Trump occasionally seemed out of his depth as he resorted to his usual character attacks.

After one exchange with Mr Bush, Mr Trump attacked his low polls numbers, citing recent polls that show the businessman extending his lead over the rest of the field.

Said Mr Trump: “Well, let's see. I'm at 42, and you're at 3. So, so far, I'm doing better.”

The substantive policy debates largely excluded him. Instead it was Mr Cruz and Mr Rubio who clashed over whether the 11 million illegal immigrants in the country should have a path to citizenship and whether the National Security Agency should have continued its bulk collection of phone metadata.

There was also big divisions among candidates over whether regime change was the correct policy for the US.

The debate was the first for the Republican Party since the attacks in Paris and California and national security expectedly occupied more than half of the two-hour debate, with each of the nine candidates outlining their plans for attacking ISIS.

This was the last Republican debate of the year. There will be one more before the primary voters cast their vote in Iowa in February.