Trump, Cruz assert their standing atop Republican field

NORTH CHARLESTON, South Carolina (AP) — Republican presidential candidates Donald Trump and Ted Cruz asserted their standing atop their party's race in a fiery debate, overshadowing a crowded field of rivals with just two weeks to go before early voting begins.

Thursday night's debate was a shift from the relative civility between the billionaire and the senator in the days leading up to the Feb. 1 Iowa caucuses.

Trump renewed his suggestion that Cruz may not be eligible to serve as commander in chief, saying the senator has a "big question mark" hanging over his candidacy, given his birth in Canada to an American mother. Cruz suggested Trump was only turning on him because he's now challenging for the lead in Iowa, and the businessman agreed.

And Trump, accused of having "New York values," gave an emotional recounting of his hometown's response to the Sept. 11 attacks.

"When the World Trade Center came down, I saw something that no place on Earth could have handled more beautifully, more humanely than New York," Trump said. "That was a very insulting statement that Ted made."

Sen. Marco Rubio, who holds a slight advantage over the field of more mainstream candidates, found himself in heated exchanges with both Cruz and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

Rubio likened Christie's policies to President Barack Obama's, particularly on guns, Planned Parenthood and education reform — an attack Christie declared false.

Cruz confronted Rubio over his support for a Senate bill that would have created a pathway to citizenship for people in the U.S. illegally, an unpopular position among Republican primary voters. Rubio accused Cruz of switching positions on immigration himself.

Cruz was also on the defensive about his failure to disclose on federal election forms some $1 million in loans from Wall Street banks during his 2012 Senate campaign. He said it was little more than a "paperwork error."

The debate came at the end of a week that has highlighted anew the deep rifts in the Republican Party. South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, a rising star, was praised by many party leaders for including a veiled criticism of Trump's angry rhetoric during her response Tuesday to Obama's State of the Union address, only to be chastised by conservative commentators.

Trump said he wasn't offended by Haley's speech and stuck with his controversial call for temporarily banning Muslims from the United States because of fear of attacks emanating from abroad.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who has struggled to gain any momentum in the race, urged Trump to reconsider the policy.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich called for at least a temporary halt on the Obama administration's plan to allow thousands of Syrian refugees into the country.

On the economy and national security, the candidates agreed any of them would be better than Obama or Hillary Clinton, the leading Democratic candidate.

Republicans have one more debate scheduled — a Jan. 28 event in Des Moines — before voting begins in Iowa.

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Pace reported from Washington. AP writer Steve Peoples contributed to this report.

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