North Charleston Coliseum and Performing Arts Center
Fox Business Network
Neil Cavuto and Maria Bartiromo host the primetime debate Trish Regan and Sandra Smith host the happy hour debate
Fox News Channel
Primetime Debate 9PM/ET
Happy Hour Debate 6PM/ET
Rand Paul (declined)
The sixth Republican primary debate was held on January 14, 2016 in Charleston, South Carolina, at the North Charleston Coliseum and Performing Arts Center. The first debate of either party to be held in the new year (Democrats would have their first three days later), it occurred just two weeks before the crucial Iowa Caucus, the results of which were widely expected to thin out the erstwhile bloated ranks of the GOP contenders.
Even before Iowa, however, Republican candidates' numbers were coming down going into this debate. Amid weakening support in recent polls, Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul were demoted out of the primetime event and permitted only to attend the earlier “happy hour” debate – with Paul refusing his invitation to that gathering and not attending. Billionaire businessman Donald Trump remained firmly on top of the GOP pack, but surprise gains had shown Texas Senator Ted Cruz to a solid second. This set the stage for a showdown tonight, as the debate took place in the wake of revelations that Cruz had failed to disclose a $1 million loan from Goldman Sachs to his Senate campaign, as required by the FEC. Cruz had attempted to explain the reporting failure as an unintentional filing error, but it appeared likely that moderators or Trump himself (if not both) would engage him on the issue. Trump had also been raising questions in weeks leading up to the event concerning Cruz's eligibility, pointing out that the Senator was born in Canada and may not be constitutionally permitted to hold the office of President.
The debate was hosted by Fox Business Network, the second GOP debate of the season they had hosted, and was overseen by veteran moderators Neil Cavuto and Maria Bartiromo. Both journalists had already helped moderate the first Fox Business Network debate, earlier the previous year.
With so much at stake at this point in the primary season, analysts expected the gloves to come off tonight, and they were not disappointed. Though the opening question from Maria Bartiromo innocuously concerned President Obama's then-recent State of the Union address (the last of Obama's presidency) and moved on to global events such as the behavior of China, North Korea, and ISIS, pointed questioning soon emerged for Ted Cruz about his campaign filing issues. Cruz deflected Bartiromo with noticeable confidence and charisma, explaining that he had received a loan which he publicly disclosed to the US Senate but, due to a clerical error, not to the Federal Election Commission. He acknowledged that this was a mistake, but reiterated that he had made the loan public knowledge regardless. He then took a swipe at the newspaper that had originally broken the story, calling their article a “hit piece” and remarking, “If that's the best hit the New York Times has got, they better go back to the well.”
A much more contentious argument occurred when Neil Cavuto invited Ted Cruz to address the allegations – made prominent in weeks leading up to the debate by the voice of Donald Trump – that because Cruz was born in Canada, he may not qualify under constitutional requirements for a presidential candidate. Cruz attempted to dismiss the concerns as “birther” attacks – calling to mind similar thoroughly-derided accusations Donald Trump had made years earlier against President Obama (when some people believed that Obama had actually been born in the African nation of Kenya, a theory that has since been disproven). Cruz pointed out that as recently as September of 2015, Trump had shared a report from his lawyers that Cruz had no ineligibility issue to discuss, and suggested that the GOP frontrunner was now resorting to this tactic only because of polls showing that Cruz was gunning for the top spot in Iowa - “Since September, the Constitution hasn't changed” Cruz said, “but the poll numbers have.” Trump fired back that he personally would not exploit the birth issue, but that Cruz should seek a declaratory ruling from a court before continuing his campaign because the Democrats may well file a lawsuit against him even if he were to be offered so much as the Vice President's office. The audience hosted a loud duel between Trump supporters and those favoring Cruz during the clash, though booing of Trump's ineligibility allegations was stark.
The two men butted heads again when Bartiromo asked Cruz to elaborate on comments he had made previous to the debate that Trump, who is from New York, “embodies New York values”. Cruz explained that while there were “many wonderful working men and women” in New York, the city's values were socially liberal, to include being pro-abortion and in favor of gay marriage. He added that “Not a lot of conservatives come out of Manhattan. I'm just sayin'.” Trump took offense, and jumped to defend New Yorkers. He specifically named William Buckley as one conservative from Manhattan, and praised the people there generally for their handling of the 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, concluding that the entire world loved New York. This time, Trump's supporters were out in force, cheering and applauding his rebuttal.
Other exchanges were numerous, and heated. Marco Rubio battled Chris Christie on the subject of negative campaign ads, before later taking his own turn in the ring with Ted Cruz over budget expenses. Trump argued with Jeb Bush about international trade, particularly as it relates to China – with the seasoned businessman expressing strong feelings that the United States is frequently on the losing end of trade with the Asian nation. Virtually all the candidates liberally criticized President Obama, with many tying his policies to those of Hillary Clinton and implicitly (or explicitly) suggesting that the Democratic frontrunner's victory would essentially represent a third Obama term.
Issues covered by the moderators over the course of the debate included the economy, health care (with unanimous loathing of the Affordable Care Act), and the challenge of combating terrorism. Gun control received a major discussion between the candidates, all of whom spoke favorably of Second Amendment rights and sometimes attacked the gun records of their opponents onstage.
As usual, the evening ended with closing statements from each of the men debating. Trump took a jab at the much-criticized US nuclear agreement with Iran, stating that there would be “no more stupid deals” under his presidency and repeating his favored refrain that he would make America great again. Christie excoriated President Obama's State of the Union address of two nights earlier. Rubio, meanwhile, called the coming election a “turning point in history”, and openly worried about the consequences of a Democratic victory in 2016.