Wolf Blitzer with questions from Chief Political Correspondent Dana Bash and talk radio host Hugh Hewitt
CNN, Salem Radio
Participating in the Prime Time debate at 8:30 PM/ET
Participating in the Happy Hour debate at 6:00 PM/ET
The fifth Republican primary debate was held on December 15, 2015 at the Venetian Casino-Hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada. It held the distinction of being only the second-to-last Republican debate before the crucial Iowa caucuses, and the final such contest of 2015.
The debate was hosted by CNN, and moderated by CNN journalist Wolf Blitzer, with the network's Chief Political Correspondent Dana Bash and Salem Radio Network talk show host Hugh Hewitt contributing as questioners. Nine candidates took the stage tonight, including New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, whose rallying support caused him to be welcomed back to the primetime debate despite being relegated last time to the earlier “happy hour” event for lower-polling candidates. This time, it was Senator Rand Paul who was in danger of being excluded, as a result of his wavering numbers. 11th-hour polling saw him with a strong showing, however, especially in the crucial state of Iowa. Because of this data, and “in the spirit of being as inclusive as possible”, a CNN spokesperson said he would be invited to the debate. Republican candidates Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, George Pataki, and Lindsey Graham were not so lucky – they had to make due with attendance at the earlier face-off.
The theme of tonight's debate was stated to be terrorism and national security, and indeed, these subjects dominated the evening's questioning. Most candidates at least mentioned them in their opening statements, and all were given ample opportunity to elaborate on their relevant positions. GOP frontrunner Donald Trump – whose lead had wavered preceding the last debate, but by now had solidified itself again – took what has come to be his characteristic hard line, advocating draconian policies for which he made no apology. Trump explicitly stated that he would be willing to consider closing off portions of the Internet – in ways that may be similar to China's censorship of its' citizens' online access – as a means of retarding the recruitment efforts of ISIS. He reiterated comments he has made in the past advocating a ban on entry into the US by Muslims, and he spoke in support of deliberately targeting the families of terrorists – who, he said, are generally aware of their relatives' actions - with military strikes.
Predictably, Trump was rebuked for these statements, most harshly and aggressively by Jeb Bush. Bush called out Trump's positions as being “not serious”, and he accused the billionaire of being “unhinged”. Trump was dismissive of the latter accusation, claiming that Bush didn't really mean it and was only saying such things to revitalize a failing campaign. The former contention about a lack of seriousness came most pointedly to a head in response to Trump's declaring that the families of terrorists were guilty and should be attacked. Bush pounced with little mercy, frequently speaking out of turn to the point of Trump heatedly demanding, “are you talking, or am I talking?” to little avail. Eventually, Wolf Blitzer stepped in and forced the candidates to speak individually. Trump sarcastically praised Bush for being “a nice guy”, but said the former Florida Governor was not tough enough to take on terror. Bush answered that Trump would not be able to insult his way into the White House, and Trump retorted that Bush's attitude would never make America great again.
Even the audience took a turn criticizing Trump. The value of privacy versus the need for security was heavily discussed, during which Trump said that rather than closing down parts of the Internet (which, again, he has also supported), he would much rather use it to spy on the conversations of terrorists. A portion of the audience booed him, to a degree that might have at least inspired nervousness in some candidates. Trump, however, directly confronted his detractors. “I can't imagine anyone booing what I'm saying,” he declared incredulously, glaring angrily at the seated crowd. “These are people who want to kill us, and you're against listening to their conversations? I don't think so. I don't think so.” His supporters in the audience cheered their approval.
One-time solid second Doctor Ben Carson, whose support had sputtered somewhat in recent weeks, was questioned about his traditionally soft-spoken nature. Hugh Hewitt wondered whether the timid Carson would be able to order military strikes against ISIS knowing that, for example, innocent children might well be killed as a result. Carson compared such an order to his career as a neurosurgeon, when he was sometimes required to inform a frightened, wide-eyed child that it would be necessary to cut open his head so that a tumor could be removed. The child, he said, was always happier in the end. Hewitt pushed for clarity after this answer, asking whether Carson would in fact “be okay with killing thousands of children” to attack ISIS. The audience loudly booed the questioner, prompting Carson to smile and point triumphantly out at them as he declared, “you got it. You got it.”
Immigration was raised as a national security issue, with Senator Marco Rubio having some uncomfortable moments when he was forced to defend his unpopular (among Republicans) support for an eventual path to citizenship for people currently in the country illegally, but he came through the conversation with his characteristic charisma. North Korea was discussed in light of its' claims to have a hydrogen bomb. Russia came up, and Carly Fiorina was called to task for statements she had previously made that the US currently cannot negotiate with Vladimir Putin from a position of strength, and so as president she would not talk to him at all. Fiorina defended her position by saying she would rapidly shore up the US position in the Baltic and Middle East, and then deal with Putin.
The debate concluded with a round of closing statements from the candidates. Rand Paul devoted his to an indictment of the national debt as a serious security issue. Ben Carson discussed the need to preserve American exceptionalism. Carly Fiorina said the need was urgent to defeat Hillary Clinton in the coming election. And Donald Trump, meanwhile, fell back on a familiar lament, saying regretfully that “America doesn't win anymore” and that he would make the country greater than ever before.
That wasn't all Trump said, as the nervousness of the Republican establishment over his potentially seeking an independent run (something he has formally pledged not to do) prompted a question regarding whether he would be willing to denounce any such potential move. Republican brass may have slept a bit easier after this debate: Trump reassured them that he was committed to the GOP, and would not be running outside the elephant's tent.