After barely making the cut to join the main Republican presidential debate Tuesday, Kentucky U.S. Sen. Rand Paul took aim at Donald Trump and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio to try and resurrect his flagging campaign.
The debate in Las Vegas, hosted by CNN, focused almost entirely on national security issues in the wake of terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif., and the Republican candidates focused the majority of their criticism on President Barack Obama.
But Paul, who made the debate stage only after a last-minute poll in Iowa showed him at 5 percent in the early-voting state, leveled his early attacks on Trump and Rubio, accusing them of trading liberty for security.
In his opening remarks, Paul, whose polling position made him the first to speak, set the tone for a debate centered around fighting ISIS, cell phone surveillance and other national security and foreign policy issues. He opened by stating that “the question is, how do we keep America safe from terrorism?”
Paul followed that by accusing Trump of wanting to follow the leads of North Korea and China in wanting to close parts of the Internet to disrupt terrorist activities and criticizing Rubio for his support of collecting Americans’ cell phone records.
“I think they’re both wrong,” Paul said. “I think we defeat terrorism by showing we do not fear them.”
Paul engaged Rubio on the USA Freedom Act, the legislation that passed this year after the expiration of the Patriot Act, but he focused most of his fire against Rubio on the Florida senator’s past work for immigration reform.
“So Marco can’t have it both ways,” Paul said. “He thinks he wants to be this ‘oh, I’m great and strong on national defense.’ But he’s the weakest of all the candidates on immigration. He is the one who is for an open border that is leaving us defenseless.”
Rubio was largely dismissive of Paul’s criticisms, thanking Paul for additional speaking time and noting that Paul’s amendment that would halt refugees from high-risk countries received little support in the Senate.
Paul used his second question, about an hour into the debate, to return his aim to Trump, questioning again whether the New York real estate titan is a “serious candidate.”
Paul again condemned Trump’s call to shut down parts of the Internet by arguing that to do so would violate the First Amendment, and he blasted Trump’s call to kill the families of terrorists as a violation of the Geneva Conventions.
“So when you ask yourself, whoever you are that think you’re going to support Donald Trump, think: Do you believe in the Constitution?” Paul said. “Are you going to change the Constitution?”
While Paul spoke, Trump dismissed the senator with a wave of his hand.
When it was his turn to respond, Trump said: “So they can kill us, but we can’t kill them? That’s what you’re saying.”
Paul then turned his attention to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, questioning Christie’s judgment when it comes to a no-fly zone over Syria and even mentioning Christie’s “Bridge-gate” scandal.
In charging that Christie was the candidate for people who want World War III, Paul questioned Christie’s judgment, noting that he is someone who might “shut down a bridge because they don’t like their friends.”
Christie didn’t take the bait, keeping his focus on what he said were others’ reckless foreign policies.
In the days leading up to Tuesday night’s debate, which comes less than two months before the Iowa caucuses, there was some question about whether Paul had met the polling criteria to be on the main debate stage.
Over the weekend, Paul’s campaign made a public plea for inclusion in the main debate, and a number of analysts were surprised to see Paul made the cut given his lackluster polling numbers.
As the Republican debate has taken a decidedly hawkish turn following the recent terror attacks, Paul continued to call for a more restrained foreign policy, arguing against regime change and advocating a “more realistic foreign policy.”