Trump vs. Bush, Cruz vs. Rubio in contentious GOP debate

LAS VEGAS — Donald TrumpDonald TrumpPro-Trump group protests CNN coverage NY Times rips Spicer in goodbye editorial NSA chief: Now is 'not the best time' for US-Russia cyber unit MORE clashed repeatedly with Jeb Bush while Ted CruzTed CruzGOP wrestles with soaring deductibles in healthcare bill Cruz: Tax reform chances ‘drop significantly’ if healthcare fails Ex-CBO directors defend against GOP attacks on ObamaCare analysis MORE and Marco RubioMarco RubioBush ethics lawyer: Congress must tell Trump not to fire Mueller The private alternative to the National Flood Insurance Program  Cruz offers bill to weaken labor board's power MORE battled over national security and immigration reform at the fifth GOP presidential debate Tuesday night. 

All of the candidates sought moments to stand out with less than 50 days to go before the Iowa caucuses, where Cruz is surging ahead of the longtime front-runner Trump in some polls. 

Trump, who has expanded his lead nationally, according to two polls released this week, was an immediate focus given his call for a temporary ban on Muslims entering the United States. He defended his proposal early in the debate, hosted by CNN, as based on security. 

The focus on national security also offered a chance for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who has shown some life in polls of New Hampshire, to tout his executive credentials. 

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Trump appeared more comfortable than in previous debates, and got his loudest applause when asked by moderator Hugh Hewitt whether he would reassure Republican voters that he would honor his pledge to support the eventual nominee.

"I really am," Trump said. "I am totally committed to the Republican Party. I feel very honored to be the front-runner."

Trump's closest rival, Cruz, refused to attack Trump, as did Rubio, who is running third in national polls.

The only candidates to attack the real estate magnate were candidates lagging near the bottom of the polls.

Bush called Trump a "chaos candidate" and said the proposal to ban all Muslims was not a "serious" proposal.

"You're not going to insult your way to the presidency," the former Florida governor told Trump.

Trump handled Bush as he has in the past, with humor and attacks on Bush's polling and "low energy."

"I know you're trying to build up your energy Jeb, but it's not working," he said. "With Jeb's attitude we will never be great again."

Responding to another Bush attack on his seriousness, Trump, noting recent poll results, said, "I'm at 41 and you're at 3... pretty soon you'll be off the stage."

But Bush repeatedly pushed back, sometimes interrupting the front-runner, once declaring, “I’m talking now.”

The clashes between Cruz and Rubio focused on substantial policy disagreements.

The fight between Rubio and Cruz opened profound divisions within the Republican Party over issues of terrorism and immigration, which were the focus of the CNN moderators. 

At one of their tenser moments, in a heated exchange over their immigration records, Cruz said, "For Marco to suggest our records are the same" is like 
"the fireman and the arsonist" saying they are both the same because "they're both at the scene of the fire."  

Cruz continually linked Rubio to Democratic Sen. Charles SchumerCharles SchumerRepair is the only “R” word that can solve our healthcare woes OPINION | How Democrats stole the nation's lower federal courts OPINION | Hey Dems, Russia won't define 2018, so why not fix your party's problems instead? MORE (D-N.Y.) for their support of the "Gang of Eight" immigration bill in 2013, and said that the Florida senator had been complicit in policy led by President Obama that would loosen borders and let in terrorists. 

"Border security is national security," Cruz said.

Rubio framed the debate as one about who is strong on national defense, trying to draw a bold contrast between his hawkish foreign policy approach and the more skeptical and libertarian-tinged instincts of Cruz, the senator from Texas, and fellow rival and Sen. Rand PaulRand PaulSunday shows preview: Scaramucci makes TV debut as new communication chief The Hill's 12:30 Report Senate heads to new healthcare vote with no clear plan MORE of Kentucky.

Joining Rubio on his side of the national security debate were Christie, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Bush, who support widespread surveillance programs and a muscular U.S. ground force presence in the Middle East. 

Ganging up on Rubio on the other side were Cruz and Paul. Both believe that America cannot trade away its freedoms by doing bulk collection of phone records and that America should not be overthrowing Middle East dictators such as Syrian leader Bashar Assad. 

Trump sided with Cruz and Paul in his belief that the world would be a better place if America had never overthrown former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. 

Directing his attacks solely at Rubio, Cruz said that "instead of being a Woodrow Wilson democracy promoter" America should "hunt down and kill" terrorists.

Rubio responded by portraying Cruz as misguided for weakening national security programs and for believing that "carpet bombing" alone would decimate the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

ISIS "must be defeated on the ground by a ground force." 

"We will have to embed American special operators" alongside Sunni Arab forces, he added.

Rubio also painted Cruz as a hypocrite for wanting to use "overwhelming air power" to destroy ISIS while at the same time voting against the funding of defense budgets. 

"You can't carpet bomb ISIS if you don't have planes and bombs to attack it with," the Florida lawmaker said, referring to Cruz's votes against the National Defense Authorization Act that is responsible for military funding.

Cruz took issue with Rubio's attacks on his voting records and, addressing him by name, accused him of malicious distortions.

"Marco ... has tossed more than a few insults in this direction," the Texan said. "Marco has continued these attacks and he knows they're not true."

Christie added another dimension to the foreign policy debate, saying that the senators were used to talking a lot but had no executive experience — as he does — that would equip them to crack down on terrorists.

As he had done in previous debates after candidates drifted into minutiae, Christie spoke to the audience, this time after Paul, Rubio and Cruz argued over the National Security Agency's surveillance programs and immigration.

“If your eyes are glazed over like mine, this is what it’s like to be on the floor of the U.S. Senate. Endless debate about how many angels fit on the head of a pin for people who have never had to make a consequential decision in the executive position."

As has happened in the previous four debates, when the conversation went into the weeds of foreign policy, Trump and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson at times receded into the background. 

Businesswoman Carly Fiorina, who has stood out in previous debates, made the least impact she has made so far. Frustrated that she was not getting a word in, Fiorina tried unsuccessfully to interrupt several times.