The main stage at CNN’s Republican debate Tuesday became a forum for declarations of resolve against ISIS -- but beneath the tough talk, distinctions between leading candidates became clear on subjects ranging from how to carry out the war against ISIS, and how to secure the United States.
A brewing disagreement between Sens. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio erupted quickly over questions about a bill, supported by Cruz and other Senate conservatives, that effectively ended the government’s mass surveillance program.
Cruz said that the so-called USA Freedom Act put a stop to bulk surveillance while allowing the intelligence community to monitor a greater variety of communications technologies. “It gave us greater tools,” Cruz said.
As Rubio vies with Cruz for position behind front-runner Donald Trump, Rubio has said that the bill highlights an “isolationist” tendency in Cruz, and that the federal government will be limited in its ability to collect information.
"This is the most sophisticated terrorist threat we have ever faced,” Rubio said. “We are at a time we need more tools."
The two men also sparred over how they would prosecute the war against ISIS.
While Cruz proposed using “overwhelming air power to utterly destroy ISIS,” Rubio followed that ISIS could not be contained by airstrikes and would need to be defeated “on the ground, by a ground force.”
It was an indication of a deeper philosophical disagreement that blew over minutes later, over the question of whether Syria’s dictator, Bashar al-Assad, should be allowed to stay in power in order to reach a settlement in the four-year war there.
“If we topple Assad the result will be ISIS will take over Syria, and it will worsen U.S. national security interests,” Cruz said.
Rubio, who is calling for a ground force in Syria made up primarily of Sunni Arab armies, said he would “not shed a tear” were Assad to go.
“It’s more than not shedding a tear. It’s actively getting involved to topple a government,” Cruz shot back.
On Monday, Saudi Arabia announced the formation of a 34-nation alliance to battle terrorism, though it is not yet clear how that alliance would take on ISIS or how it would coordinate with the existing American-led air campaign in Iraq and Syria.
Tuesday evening, Cruz said no moderate rebels are to be found in Syria. “It’s like a purple unicorn. They never exist,” he said.
There was similarly tough talk on Tuesday -- but more consensus -- on the subject of China, as candidates sounded off about Chinese cyber attacks.
Carly Fiorina called China a “rising adversary.”
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush threatened retaliation over the breach at the Office of Personell Management, which resulted in the theft of the personal information of 22.1 million Americans.
After several months of rising tension over the OPM breach, President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping made an agreement in September to seek common standards for behavior in cyberspace, and the leaders pledged that their governments would not steal data from the other for financial gain.
Yet, despite the pact between the two countries, hacking by China has remained a tense issue, and American security firms have contended that Chinese cyber attacks have continued.
“The fact is, they need to be fought back on,” Christie said, before proposing seizing information about Chinese government officials, and releasing that information to the Chinese people.
“Let the Chinese people start to digest how corrupt the Chinese government is,” Christie said.
Bush, who continues to struggle to gain footing in the race, shrugged off a question about whether retaliation against China could spark a broader cyber conflict.
“I completely agree with Chris,” Bush said, referring to Christie’s proposal. “We need to create a situation where they know there will be adverse impacts,” Bush said.
But while Bush projected strength on China, he had a harder time gaining traction on the chief issue of the moment: the war against ISIS.
Bush offered several criticisms of front-runner Donald Trump’s controversial proposals on the war, only to find Trump swatting them away.
Speaking about Trump’s remark that the U.S. should “take out” the family members of ISIS, Bush said that “the idea that that is a solution is just crazy.”
“He is a very nice person. But we need toughness,” Trump replied, speaking of Bush.
Returning to a familiar refrain, Trump declared that the U.S. has to be “much stronger than we’ve been.”
But the substantive fight Tuesday was between Rubio and Cruz, who avoided hitting Trump but circled each other all evening.
As Rubio wrapped his closing remarks, he promised to recover an American greatness he said has been lost. For his part, Cruz spoke in stark terms about delivering results.
“Together we will usher in a new American century, the greatest era in the history of this great land,” Rubio said.
“Our strategy is simple: we win, they lose,” Cruz countered.
The weeks ahead will show if either message sticks.