Marco Rubio showed why he spooks Democrats, while Ted Cruz tried to put a scare into Donald Trump during CNN’s town hall Wednesday night.
The first three candidates to participate in the two-night event moderated by Anderson Cooper showcased their different styles of conservatism.
Ben Carson quoted Scripture to show how faith guides his politics. Rubio, the senator from Florida, told stories about the values he learned as a child. And Cruz, the senator from Texas, argued he’s the most rock-ribbed of them all, saying he has defended conservative values throughout his private and public career.
Here are five takeaways from the town hall’s first night:
Cruz attacks Trump
After a day of denouncing Trump on the campaign trial – even calling a press conference to blast the billionaire businessman – Cruz kept it up on the town hall stage.
Within the first minute of his appearance, Cruz unloaded on Trump, lambasting his history of supporting abortion rights, donating to Democratic candidates and filing what Cruz called frivolous lawsuits (including the one Trump is threatening to file against Cruz to challenge his eligibility to be president).
He slammed Trump’s cease-and-desist letter aimed at an attack ad Cruz is running in South Carolina.
“It is quite literally the most ridiculous theory I’ve ever heard, that telling the voters what Trump’s actual record is is deceitful and lying,” Cruz said.
The fight with Trump has become all-consuming for Cruz’s campaign in recent days – a stark departure from the months the two spent courting each other last year.
Cruz attacked Trump while defending his own credentials as he argued that he’s the candidate voters know will appoint right-leaning Supreme Court justices.
“Don’t tell me you’re pro-life. Tell me what you’ve done to defend the right to life,” Cruz said.
His comments underscored his position in the race. Cruz feels he is within striking distance of Trump, and he’s fighting for first place rather than reprising his debate-stage battles with Rubio, who polls show is currently in third, behind Trump and Cruz.
Cruz’s performance showed why he was an effective lawyer. He touted fighting for constitutional freedoms his entire adult life, both as a government attorney and in private practice. He easily fielded a question about whether his Canadian birthplace calls his eligibility for the presidency into question, saying he’s “never breathed a breath of air” as anything but an American citizen.
And he explained why many of his Senate colleagues, as one questioner said, don’t like him.
“I’ll tell you why they say Ted is unlikable in Washington,” Cruz said. “Because I’m actually honoring the commitments I made to the men and women who elected me.”
Rubio on race
Rubio showed why he strikes fear into Democrats’ hearts – and he did it in a single answer.
Asked how he’d address racism, the senator from Florida showcased perhaps his most valuable skill: an ability to connect his life story and personal experience to his political values.
He said he has an African-American friend who is a police officer himself – yet was pulled over “seven, eight times” over several years, without ever being ticketed.
“What is he supposed to think?” Rubio asked.
When Cooper asked Rubio whether he’d experienced racism in his own life, the senator recalled being 7 years old in Las Vegas during 1980’s Mariel boatlift – a mass emigration of Cubans to the United States. He remembered neighborhood teenagers yelling at his Cuban-born parents to “get back on the boat.”
“What boat? My mom doesn’t even swim! She’s afraid of water,” he said, explaining his thoughts as a child, prompting laughter in the audience.
He spoke with ease and compassion about academic underperformance, “broken homes, dangerous housing, substandard housing” and other race-related challenges.
“A child that’s born with four strikes against them is going to struggle to succeed unless something breaks that cycle,” Rubio said.
Carson gets personal
It’s becoming a go-to joke for Ben Carson at debates: He never gets enough time to speak.
But on Wednesday, without the buzzers, interjecting moderators and other candidates contending for talk time, he was able to delve more deeply into his life story.
The retired neurosurgeon used that time to talk about his mild-mannered demeanor and argue that – despite GOP concerns – it would help him confront a Democratic opponent in the general election.
“I had a program at the hospital where I’d bring in 800 students at a time, frequently elementary students, and you would say, ‘How are you going to be able to speak to 800 elementary students and keep them quiet?’ You know what? By speaking softly. Because then they’d say, ‘Oh, what’s he saying?’ And they would shut up,” Carson said.
Carson also talked about his hobbies, saying he loves to shoot pool – particularly with his wife, who can beat him.
“I like to win,” Carson said. “And I’ll tell you, it relaxes me. When I would come home from a busy day of surgery, I would shoot pool.”
Straddling security and civil liberties on Apple
The town hall unfolded a day after the U.S. government won a key court ruling that would require Apple to unlock one of the San Bernardino shooters’ iPhones – a decision that alarmed both the company and advocates of civil liberties.
To varying degrees, the candidates backed the government – even as they tried to acknowledge the powerful strain of libertarian politics in the GOP.
Cruz argued the company can’t defy the legal process.
“Any time you’re dealing with issues of security and civil liberties, you’ve got to balance them both,” he said. “And I think we can walk and chew gum at the same time. We can protect ourselves from terrorism and also protect our civil rights.”
Rubio, meanwhile, acknowledged Apple’s concerns that if it is forced to create a “backdoor” into its iPhones, it’s possible a “criminal gang could figure out what the backdoor is.”
“There has to be a way to deal with this issue that continues to protect the privacy of Americans, but creates some process by which law enforcement and intelligence agencies could access encrypted information,” Rubio said.
He continued: “I don’t have a magic solution for it today. It’s complicated. It’s a new issue that’s emerged just in the last couple of years. But I do know this: It will take a partnership between the technology industry and the government to confront and solve this.”
Rubio did, however, say the company will end up having to comply with the court order.
Carson said Americans “have to get over” their distrust of the government.
He called for a public-private partnership to address technical and cybersecurity challenges.
“So it’s going to be a matter of people learning to trust each other, which means Apple needs to sit down with trustworthy members of the government,” Carson said. “And that may have to wait until the next election, I don’t know, but we’ll see.”
Battle of the bands
Carson digs Baroque. Rubio loves EDM (that’s electronic dance music). And when Cruz calls his wife, he makes up new lyrics for “corny” songs.
As Rubio embraced EDM, which has grown increasingly popular among young people in recent years, he explained the genre for the conservative audience. He joked that “maybe people thought it was something else.”
When Cooper asked Rubio if he’s ever been to a rave, though, things really got good. An incredulous Rubio said he hadn’t, and then added, “It’s a Republican primary, Anderson!”
He joked about the tall black boots he once wore in New Hampshire – which became the butt of jokes from candidates like Trump.
“I’m a little old to be going to a rave. Although I have the boots for it!” Rubio said.
Then he made the most conservative-sounding case in history for the often lyricless EDM, saying that “the lyrics are clean.”
Carson’s iPod likely doesn’t have so much pump-me-up music.
“I primarily like classical music, particularly Baroque music,” he said.
He said he used to have new doctors in their rotations learn about music in addition to medicine.
Cruz said he sometimes sings to his wife, Heidi, when he calls. “And I am a painfully horrible singer.”
Cooper asked: “Is this punishment?” And a laughing Cruz responded, “I’m hoping it is sort of sincere and endearing.”
“I actually don’t sing musicals,” he said. “I will sing things like, ‘Oh my darling, oh my darling, oh my darling, Heidi-tine.’ Which is really corny, but I used to do it when she’d put it on speaker phone in her office, and embarrass her.”