Republican Undercard Debate Has Clear Focus: Islam

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National security was the stated subject of Tuesday night’s debate among four also-ran Republican White House hopefuls. In reality, however, the forum was a 104-minute discussion of Islam and its adherents.

The conversation in Las Vegas came as Republican frontrunner Donald Trump continues calling for a ban on all Muslim immigration into the United States. The leader in the polls has drawn criticism for his aggressive—and potentially illegal—moves against an entire faith and its billion adherents.

Three of the four Republicans on stage in the undercard debate seemed to go along with Trump’s rhetoric against Islam. After all, it’s been good for Trump’s polling.

“We have entered World War III, and we have a leader who refuses to identify it,” former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania said. “The enemy is a theocracy,” he added.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a former Baptist pastor, said it’s time to pause immigration in the name of security and said the government’s job is not “to protect the reputation of Islam.” Instead, the government should be free to infiltrate mosques to monitor for sermons calling for extremism. “If Islam is as wonderful and peaceful as its adherents say, shouldn’t they be begging us all to come … so we all convert to Islam?”

And former George Pataki, the Governor of New York when al-Qaeda attacked on 9/11, linked a likely bomb hoax in Los Angeles schools hours earlier was tied to radical Islam—despite no public indication that jihadists were behind it. “As we saw today in L.A., we are at a crisis in our country. Radical Islam poses a threat to our safety not just overseas, but literally in every community in America,” Pataki said.

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Only Sen. Lindsey Graham, a hawkish South Carolinian, seemed willing to defend the religion. Instead, he begged his rivals to keep the focus on radical Islam, not the billions of Muslims who have shown no animosity toward the United States. “Leave the faith alone,” Graham said, adding that every time someone pitches the United States as at war with Islam, ISIS uses it as a recruiting tool.

It was a clear distinction among the quartet that has struggled in the polls and is heading toward Iowa’s Feb. 1 caucuses badly trailing their rivals. As a sign of how badly they’re doing, they couldn’t even qualify for the main stage with Trump.

Hoping to capture some of Trump’s mojo, they seemed to embrace his anti-Muslim and anti-Islam rhetoric.

“Islam is different. This is going to come as a shock to people,” said Santorum, who has long be critical is Islam’s power in global affairs. “Islam is not just a religion. It is a political governing structure.”

The winner of Iowa’s caucuses in 2012, and later the runner-up to eventual nominee, said voters should use some logic. “All jihadists are Muslims. That’s a reality,” Santorum said. “We have to stop worrying about offending some people and start worrying about defending all Americans.”

At another point, Huckabee, who won the Iowa caucuses in 2008, said the fight was “a religious war between radical Islam and the rest of the world.” And Pataki mistakenly called Trump “this President” as though he were already in power.

Graham’s frustration was visible. “You’re once again shaking your head, Sen. Graham,” CNN’s Wolf Blitzer said.

Graham shook his head, stared at the ceiling, bit his lip and inspected his shoes at different moments. The foreign policy hawk who has made 36 trips to Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001, Graham tested his patience in keeping cool.

Repeatedly, Graham chided his peers. “You’re not going to win that way, Rick,” Graham told Santorum of his strategy in Syria. “If you don’t understand that, you’re not ready to be Commander in Chief.”

Graham yet again demonstrated his mastery of foreign affairs. Yet he has never gotten a polling bump after stellar debate performances. It’s not clear Tuesday night’s forum on the Las Vegas Strip would be any different.

Still, Graham is continuing to push his plans, including sending 10,000 troops to Syria. “I don’t just make this up,” he said. “We’re at war, folks,” he added after another exchange. “They’re not trying to steal your car. They’re trying to kill us.”

That’s not to say Graham is soft on ISIS: “These people are religious Nazis.”

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