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Terror threat dominates ‘undercard’ GOP debate

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Rick Santorum at the GOP debate in Las Vegas.

 

LAS VEGAS (CNN) — National security, the fight against ISIS and the role of Muslims in American society immediately dominated Tuesday’s Republican presidential debate — the first since terror attacks shook Paris and San Bernardino, California.

Four lower-polling GOP White House hopefuls kicked off CNN’s so-called “undercard” debate by raising alarm about the threat of radical Islam. And many slammed the proposal from Donald Trump, the party’s front-runner, to temporarily ban all Muslims from entering the United States.

“You may think this makes us safe, but it doesn’t,” said South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, one of Trump’s most vocal critics. “Donald Trump has done the one single thing you cannot do — declare war on Islam itself.”

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum said it’s “not the right proposal.”

But Santorum blasted a culture of political correctness that he faults for blunting debate over the role of Muslims in society.

“Not all Muslims are jihadists,” he said. “All jihadists are Muslim.”

Santorum and Graham — who dominated the discussion — were joined by former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former New York Gov. George Pataki. All four are polling in the low-single digits, and risk being next on the chopping block if they’re unable to gain real momentum soon.

The candidates also discussed the fate of Bowe Bergdahl, the American soldier charged with desertion. Trump has repeatedly attacked Bergdahl at campaign rallies, calling him a traitor who should be executed.

Graham mocked that suggestion on stage, scoffing: “Mr. Trump, you don’t have to speak about everything. That’s not required.”

“For God’s sakes, Mr. Trump, you’re asking to be the commander in chief,” the senator said. “Up your game.”

Pataki said he personally believes Bergdahl is guilty, but that he doesn’t think he should be executed. “I do think he will have a fair military trial,” he said.

Trump will play defense

Trump will take center stage at the prime-time event set to begin at 8:30 p.m. ET in the Venetian theater. He’ll be flanked by Ted Cruz, the Texas senator whose poll numbers are on the upswing; and Ben Carson, the retired neurosurgeon whose political standing has been damaged by a series of gaffes.

The stakes are higher than ever for the White House hopefuls, as they eye the Iowa caucuses now just seven weeks away and adjust to new political dynamics in the aftermath of ISIS-inspired terror attacks. The anxiety in the wake of those attacks was evident on Tuesday when public schools in Los Angeles took the unprecedented step of closing in response to what the superintendent called a “rare” threat.

Trump will find himself playing defense during the debate.

“They’re all coming after me,” Trump said at a rally here on Monday. “This will not be an evening in paradise for me.”

The New York real estate mogul is fielding political backlash for his proposal to temporarily ban all Muslims from entering the United States. GOP party leaders have openly criticized the idea — condemnation that Trump has responded to by reopening the possibility of launching an independent bid.

Meanwhile, Cruz is now threatening Trump’s monthslong front-runner status in Iowa, with polls showing the senator either neck-and-neck with or ahead of Trump in the state. But the candidate has shown little appetite for publicly engaging Trump.

Trump remains the undisputed national GOP presidential front-runner. A Monmouth University poll on Monday placed him at 41%, the first time he’s cracked the 40% threshold in a national survey. A poll from The Washington Post and ABC News conducted entirely after Trump proposed the Muslim ban found support for Trump at 38% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents — up six percentage points from a Post/ABC poll in mid-November.

Marco Rubio remains in the top tier of candidates and goes into debate night facing big expectations. He’s delivered strong performances at previous forums and has worked to build expertise on foreign policy — a premier topic at the Las Vegas showdown.

Rubio, who spent part of his childhood here, has sparred with Cruz on foreign policy, blasting the senator as too isolationist.

For Chris Christie, the main debate marks a moment of redemption. Christie was relegated to the so-called “undercard” debate in November after failing to qualify for the prime-time event. But the New Jersey governor has seen a resurgence in recent weeks, particularly in New Hampshire, a key state for his campaign.

And Rand Paul, who has also struggled in recent months, was widely expected to not make the cut for the main debate this week. But he was rescued at the last minute by a new Iowa poll over the weekend.