Fox Business Network hosted the first Republican presidential debate of 2016 on Thursday, marking the sixth time the GOP candidates have gathered on stage to face off. Thursday's event took place in North Charleston, South Carolina, and began with an undercard debate at 6 p.m. Eastern, followed by the main stage event at 9 p.m. Eastern. Though Thursday was a critical moment for the Republican presidential hopefuls, as it marked the first debate of an election year, the GOP candidates are scheduled to gather for another six debates in the long race for the White House, and a lot can change in ten months.
A total of 12 Republican candidates are still in the running at the start of 2016 — business tycoon and party frontrunner Donald Trump, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore.
The last time the GOP candidates gathered to debate was at the CNN debate on Dec. 15 in Las Vegas. Since then, the pool of candidates has diminished by two, after Sen. Lindsey Graham withdrew from the race on Dec. 21 and former New York Gov. George Pataki called his supporters on Dec. 29 to announce the end of his campaign.
Staging the debate: Despite the relatively large number of presidential hopefuls still in the running to win the Republican nomination, recent poll numbers show that although there's a large pool of candidates, voter support is heavily weighted toward the top two candidates — Trump and Cruz. According to a Wall Street Journal poll published on Thursday, only four GOP candidates were polling above 10%, and Trump's enjoying a 13 point lead on his challengers.
And perhaps another indication that the pack of leading GOP candidates is tightening was the division of candidates between the main debate and undercard stages on Thursday. For the first time in a Republican presidential debate, Fiorina was bumped from the main stage to the undercard debate, joining Huckabee and Santorum. Paul chose not to participate in the debate.
Check back as Mic will be live-blogging a recap and highlights from the debate here.
Taking the stage right on time, the candidates took their position according to their poll numbers — Trump took the center podium flanked by Cruz on his left and Rubio on his right.
Rather than peg the candidates for opening remarks, moderators Neil Cavuto and Maria Bartiromo jumped right in with a question for Cruz concerning jobs and economic growth in America. However, Cruz chose to first answer a question he was not asked, and instead used the bulk of his time to criticize President Barack Obama for no mention during his SOTU of the U.S. Navy sailors who were held captive overnight by the Irani military earlier this week.
The question was more or less recycled to Kasich, who proposed that corporate and individual tax cuts, fiscal discipline and minimal regulation as solutions. "I think we should freeze all federal regulations for one year, except for health and safety," he said, arguing these steps would both raise wages and increased job creation.
Christie spoke next, lamenting Obama's hopeful tone during his final SOTU speech. "I watched story-time with Barack Obama, and it sounded like everything in the world was going amazing," Christie said. "The fact is a number of things the next president will have to do to clean up this mess."
Speaking next, Bush agreed with Christie on a less than rosy outlook for the nation, citing recent acts of terrorism, and the state of U.S. relations with countries like China and Russia. "In this administration every weapons system has been gutted," Bush said. "We can't even go down to level where we can't project force. Our friend no longer think we have their back and our enemies no longer fear us. We're in much different position than we should be. For the life of me i have no understanding why the president thinks that everything is going well."
Rubio agreed, and even went so far as to "disqualify" Clinton from running for president saying, "Someone who can not handle intelligence information appropriately, can not be commander-in-chief and someone who lies to the families of those four victims in benghazi can never be president of the United States."
Carson jumped in next, saying, "I was very happy to get a question this early on I was going to ask you to wake me up when the time came," before continuing on to discuss, among other things, war strategy in the 21st century.
The discussion turns to the refugee crisis: Cavuto pressed Trump on his stance on refugees and whether he would refuse anyone fleeing terror and seeking asylum in the U.S. "It's not fear and terror," Trump answered, "It's reality." Trump described the immigrant crisis as a "Trojan horse" situation, added that when he looked at the line of people hoping to enter the U.S., he sees "very few women. Very few children." He said he saw "strong, powerful men" instead.
About 30 minutes into the debate, the conversation veered toward the question of Cruz's "eligibility" as president, according to Trump, who contests that Cruz is a natural born American. The resulting discourse saw tensions escalate between Cruz and Trump that dissolved into what sounded like petty bickering.
"I already know the Democrats are going to be bringing a suit," Trump told Cruz. "You have a big lawsuit over your head while you're running and if you become the nominee, who the hell knows if you can even serve in office."
"I 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," Cruz hit back.
Not long after, Rubio was given a chance to speak, but, like Cruz's opening response, the candidate instead spent the majority of his time tearing down Obama. Cruz also used his talking time as an opportunity to attack Christie, claiming his opponent supported many of Obama's policies, including such "liberal" agendas as gun control and common core.
Christie called a spade a spade when he basically quoted Bush who, during the fifth GOP presidential debate in December told Trump that he wouldn't be able to insult his way to the White House, and tried to "set the facts straight" saying he has never funded Planned Parenthood and pointed out that he has vetoed a proposed statewide I.D. system for gun owners in New Jersey.
Nearly an hour into the debate, the candidates onstage seemed to remember who they're really up against in the race for the White House — the Democrats. "I like Marco Rubio," said Christie. "He is a good guy, a smart guy and he would be a heck of a lot better president than Hillary Rodham Clinton."
"I know Bernie [Sanders] and I can promise you he will not be president of the United States," added Kasich. A bright moment for Carson came when the moderators asked the former neurosurgeon to comment on whether or not it's accurate to label Clinton "an enabler of sexual misconduct," considering her husband Bill Clinton's White House sex scandal.
"Is this America anymore," Carson responded, not taking the bait. "Do we still have standards? Do we still have values and principles?" Instead, Carson spoke about the divisiveness and hatred that's permeating American society, pointing to racial tensions, income equality, racism and gender discrimination as examples.
"We have people at each other's throats," Carson said. "And our strength is actually in our unity."
Perhaps predictably, considering proposed executive orders from Obama last week that aim to rework gun legislation in the U.S., the conversation turned to gun control. Candidates trumpeted the importance of the Second Amendment, a that spiraled into candidates basically arguing over who would honor the amendment most fiercely.
Evoking 9/11: Next, when Cruz tried to suggest Trump's policies were more leftward leaning than his challengers, based solely on the fact that the real estate mogul is a New Yorker. "Everyone understands that the values in New York City are socially liberal or pro-abortion or pro-gay marriage," Cruz said, alluding that Americans in South Carolina were somehow more hardworking, or vaguely more conservative. But Trump turned the attack on its head by evoking New Yorkers' indestructible spirit, as evidenced by their response to the 9/11 terror attacks.
"New york is a great place, it's got great people, it's got loving people, wonderful people," Trump said. "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."
Given recent, global-wide acts of terror at the hands of the Islamic State Group, or ISIS, the candidates were asked to comment on the best strategies for defeating the threat of jihadist-bred violence.
Responding first, Carson argued for military escalation in Syria and Iraq, saying that the caliphate empowers and legitimizes terrorists and arguing for a need to disassemble is through the use of military force.
Jumping in on the topic of Syria, Christie took aim at Syria's commander in chief, Bashar al-Assad, arguing that the U.S. government should attack if Assad were to use chemical weaponry. "We're not going to have peace in Syria," Christie said. "We're not going to be able to rebuild unless we put in a no-fly zone, make it safe... so we don't have to talk about refugees anymore. The Syrians should stay in Syria."
Speaking of refugees, the moderators pressed Trump to comment on the fact that his proposed ban on a nation-wide shutdown of Muslims entering the U.S. According to the moderators, the proposal was the most talked-about incident in Trump's campaign, according to the volume of discussion on Facebook. The debate hosts asked Trump if he would reconsider that proposal in any way.
Yet on the issue, Trump was bullish. "I want security," he responded. "I'm tired of seeing what's going on between the border where the people flow over, people come in, they live, they shoot." adding that radical Islam is a "tremendous problem," not only in the U.S., but around the world.
At least Cruz and Trump agreed on one thing during Thursday night's debate.
"I understand why Donald made the comments he did and I understand why Americans are feeling frustrated and scared and angry when we have a president who refuses to acknowledge the threats we face and, worse, who acts as an apologist for radical Islamic terrorism," Cruz said.
After a discussion of Sino-American relations, particularly on the state of finances and foreign trade, a long portion of the debate was dedicated to talk of tax reform. In the resulting remarks, the candidates trumpeted what they said they believed to be their tax reform plans' differentiating factors.
Toward the end of the candidates' remarks on tax reform, Carson jumped in to say that "many reputable journals," the Wall Street Journal among them, voted his campaign's plan ahead of the competition.
Nearing 11 p.m. Eastern, the debate moderators touched on how Trump planned to balance his enormous wealth and the business empire he's built with his responsibility to prioritize America above all else should he be elected as America's next commander in chief. "If I become president, I couldn't care less about my company," Trump said. "It's peanuts... I have Ivanka and Eric and Don sitting there, run the company, have a good time, I'm going to do it for America."
In what some on Twitter argued sounded like a long goodbye before the candidates were even handed their 60-seconds of allotted speaking time to voice their closing statements, the discussion onstage cycled back through some topics that had already been discussed, during which time some in the audience broke in, booing and chanting "We want Rand."
In closing, Kasich promised to continue fighting for those Americans who feel powerless, regardless of socio-economic standing, while Bush said that results, detailed plans and credibility all matter, and argued that he's got a proven track record in all three areas.
Christie returned to criticizing Obama for painting America's state of affairs as a "fantasy land," and pledged to wage a war on insecurity and terrorism, Carson went for the glass-is-half-full approach, asking voters to join him "in truth and honesty and integrity."
Rubio spoke of America's greatness, and blamed a shift away from faith in "the american miracle" on how President Obama has led the country since 2008. Cruz addressed mothers and fathers of soldiers fighting for the U.S., while Trump got the last world.
"If I'm president, there won't be stupid deals anymore," Trump said. We will make America great again. We will win on everything we do."