Donald Trump+Ted Cruz

“I’m not going to take legal advice from Donald Trump,” Ted Cruz said after his rival questioned the senator’s eligibility to serve. (Credit Eric Thayer for The New York Times)

By Jonathan Martin and Patrick Healy
January 14, 2016

NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. — Donald J. Trump and Senator Ted Cruz of Texas sharply attacked each other on Thursday night over the Canadian-born Mr. Cruz’s eligibility to be president and Mr. Trump’s “New York values,” shedding any semblance of cordiality as they dominated a Republican debate less than three weeks before the Iowa caucuses.

Their exchanges showcased the intense and unpredictable new phase of the race as polls tighten and 11 candidates jockey for political advantage — not only over issues like imposing tariffs on Chinese goods and fighting the Islamic State, but also over matters of character and integrity that drew some of the hardest punches of the race so far.

In many ways, it was the darkest debate of the campaign, as the Republicans tried to paint the grimmest possible portrait of an America in decline economically, despite rapid job growth, and militarily, though they praised service members. The ferocity onstage reflected the pressure in the race as it distills into a contest between the anti-establishment Mr. Trump and Mr. Cruz, followed by other candidates like Senator Marco Rubio of Florida and Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey.

The Times reporter Adam Nagourney analyzes key moments from the sixth Republican presidential debate on Thursday in North Charleston, S.C., as the candidates sparred over issues such as the Middle East, trade and gun control.

Mr. Rubio and Mr. Christie, along with Jeb Bush and John Kasich, are vying to emerge as the leading candidate of mainstream Republicans, yet they struggled to be heard on Thursday night.

Mr. Cruz, who has gained ground against Mr. Trump recently and is now virtually tied with him in the polls in Iowa, charged that Mr. Trump was turning desperate because his standing as front-runner had turned shaky.

After months as Mr. Trump’s closest ally in the race, Mr. Cruz pointedly noted that Mr. Trump had dismissed questions in the fall about Mr. Cruz’s constitutional eligibility given his birth to an American mother living in Calgary, Alberta.

“The Constitution hasn’t changed, but the poll numbers have,” Mr. Cruz said. “Donald is dismayed that his poll numbers are falling in Iowa.” Mr. Cruz added that the law was on his side, noting that Senator John McCain, while born in the Panama Canal Zone, was eligible to run for president. By Mr. Trump’s standard, Mr. Cruz asserted, Mr. Trump himself might not be eligible to run for president because his mother was born in Scotland.

“But I was born here — big difference,” Mr. Trump said.

Mr. Cruz gave his most aggressive performance so far as he sought to protect the support he has built among social conservatives and evangelical Christians. He was relentless in trying to put Mr. Trump in his place, in part to appeal to establishment Republicans who are deeply uncomfortable with Mr. Trump’s candidacy.

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