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Republican Debate: 5 Things You Missed

Republican presidential candidates Sen. Marco Rubio and Donald Trump participate in the Republican presidential debate at St. Anselm College Saturday in Manchester, N.H.
Joe Raedle
Getty Images
Republican presidential candidates Sen. Marco Rubio and Donald Trump participate in the Republican presidential debate at St. Anselm College Saturday in Manchester, N.H.

Saturday's GOP debate was the final one before Tuesday's New Hampshire primary. Here were five key moments:

1. That awkward start

One key thing has to happen before the debate starts: the candidates have to take the stage.

That proved more complicated than usual on Saturday night, as the ABC News Republican debate began with Ben Carson refusing to walk out to his podium, even after the moderators called his name.

Called second, Carson stood and waited, allowing Ted Cruz to go out after him. Making matters weirder: Donald Trump then stopped to stand beside Carson, rather than walking out himself. Jeb Bush walked past them as he took the stage.

After the moderators (again) called Carson, they also "lastly" called out Donald Trump — only to then to (seemingly) realize they still had to call out Kasich.

2. Rubio targeted

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie wasted no time in taking shots at Sen. Marco Rubio on Saturday night.

When asked early on to list his accomplishments, Rubio listed policies he has supported, then turned to attacking President Obama: "Let's dispel once and for all with this fiction that Barack Obama doesn't know what he's doing," he said. "He knows exactly what he's doing," Rubio said, by trying to make the U.S. like the rest of the world with policies like Obamacare.

That line would pop up again and again — and Christie noticed.

In the heated exchange that followed, Christie said that being governor meant more accountability than being a senator, saying that he had to make tougher and more important decisions than Rubio has had to as a senator. He also attacked Rubio's pattern of missing votes in the Senate, a criticism that has dogged Rubio throughout this nomination contest.

Rubio attacked Christie on his response to a recent snowstorm that hit New Jersey, but then pivoted again to the line about how Obama "knows exactly what he's doing." Christie hit back.

"There it is. There it is. The memorized 25-second speech. There it is, everybody," he said. Rubio repeated some variation of the line several times during the night.

Trump leads in recent New Hampshire polls by 10 to 20 points, but Rubio has become the candidate to beat for the so-called "establishment" candidates, like Christie, Jeb Bush, and John Kasich. Those three are fighting for survival in New Hampshire, while Rubio's numbers have surged there in the last few days.

3. Trump kept a low profile

Even though Trump skipped the last debate, some commentators nevertheless decided that he won. In bowing out, he garnered massive media attention, and he also avoided tough questions like those Cruz and Rubio fielded on their past immigration positions.

This debate, he showed up, and he had (what was for Trump) an unremarkable performance. He stuck to typical Trump talking points — on topics like China, job losses and America not winning anymore — and had few major tangles with his opponents. When he did argue with Jeb Bush on a question about eminent domain and subsequently commanded Bush to be "quiet" while he answered — the crowd booed Trump.

But then, Trump is far ahead in New Hampshire while the so-called "establishment" candidates battle it out. And while Saturday's performance may not have rocketed him further ahead, it also could help hold him in first place through Tuesday's primary vote.

4. Ambiguity on waterboarding (except Trump)

In a line of questioning about ISIS and foreign policy, moderator David Muir turned the conversation to an issue many Americans first encountered more than a decade ago. Pointing out that Cruz has in the past said that "torture is wrong, unambiguously, period," Muir asked, "Senator Cruz, is waterboarding torture?"

Cruz responded that "under the definition of torture, it's not."

But he was ambiguous when Muir followed up by asking if he would bring the practice back as president: "I would not bring it back in any sort of widespread use," he said.

Trump, meanwhile, was more forceful. Referencing "people chopping the heads off Christians," he said waterboarding (and then some) would be justified.

"I would bring back waterboarding, and I would bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding," he said.

Bush, who as Muir pointed out has in the past has said he "you won't rule waterboarding out," seemed to rule it out this time, saying he wouldn't bring the practice back. Instead, he said, "what we need to do is to make sure that we expand our intelligence capabilities."

Muir finally turned to Rubio. Noting that Rubio has said that he didn't want to "want to telegraph to the enemy" his tactics as commander-in-chief, Muir asked Rubio if waterboarding is torture. Rubio never directly answered the question, but instead repeated that he didn't want to give away to the U.S.'s enemies what he'd want to do.

"It is true, we should not be discussing in a widespread way the exact tactics that we're going to use, because that allows terrorist to know to practice how to evade us," he said. He then pivoted to attacking President Obama's plan to close the detention center at Guantanamo Bay.

5. Cruz was on defense

Cruz, fresh off a strong victory in Iowa, found himself on the defensive immediately in Saturday night's Republican debate in Manchester, N.H. First, he was asked to answer his comments that Donald Trump does not have the temperament to be president. Cruz demurred, saying that was for the voters to decide.

Then, moderators asked him to answer for voicemails, emails, and text messages that his campaign sent out on the night of the Iowa caucuses, reporting that Ben Carson was suspending his campaign.

Cruz, whose campaign has confirmed that it sent the messages, explained that it was based on a CNN report that Carson was "taking a break" after Iowa, as Cruz said, adding that CNN said it was a "highly unusual" move.

Earlier in the week, CNN said that Cruz's characterizations of the network's reports this past week were "false." And Saturday night, CNN posted a story with the headline, "Ted Cruz is wrong about CNN's reporting." The network explained that CNN reporter Chris Moody tweeted on the night of the caucuses that Carson was going home to Florida, but then shortly thereafter added that Carson was not suspending the campaign.

Cruz apologized on stage to Carson. For his part, Carson had said the incident was indicative of Cruz's "DC values."

"Washington ethics basically says, 'If it's legal you do what you need to do in order to win,'" Carson said at the debate. "That's not my ethics. My ethics say you do what's right."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit

Danielle Kurtzleben is a political correspondent assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on The NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.
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