Republicans held their first debate in the key state of South Carolina last night. Voters head to the polls in South Carolina on February 20 in the third caucus or primary after Iowa and New Hampshire. The latest polls show front-runner Donald Trump continues to hold a commanding national lead at 33 percent - 13 points ahead of his closest challenger, Texas Senator Ted Cruz. Cruz, however, has recently surged in the opening contest of Iowa, where he and Trump are now tied. With Cruz in second place, Trump has confronted his top challenger by raising questions about his eligibility to become president, because Cruz was born in Canada to a Cuban father and an American mother. We discuss Thursday's Republican debate with two guests: Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor and publisher of The Nation magazine, and Tom Turnipseed, a self-described "reformed racist" who served as national director of segregationist Alabama Governor George Wallace's 1968 presidential campaign, but has since become a civil rights attorney and social justice activist.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Republicans held their first debate in the key state of South Carolina last night. Voters head to the polls in South Carolina on February 20th in the third caucus or primary after Iowa and New Hampshire. The prime-time lineup was narrowed to seven hopefuls after Senator Rand Paul and former HP CEO Carly Fiorina failed to make the cut. The latest polls show front-runner Donald Trump continues to hold a commanding national lead at 33 percent - 13 points ahead of his closest challenger, Texas Senator Ted Cruz. Cruz, however, has recently surged in the opening contest of Iowa, where he and Trump are now tied.
AMY GOODMAN: Just before the debate, it emerged that Senator Cruz failed to disclose a Goldman Sachs loan used to finance his 2012 Senate bid in Texas. The New York Times reports Cruz took out loans from Goldman Sachs and Citibank totaling $1 million. Cruz's Senate campaign did not report either of the loans in its filings with the Federal Election Commission. With Cruz in second place, Trump has confronted his top challenger by raising questions about his eligibility to become president, because Cruz was born in Canada to a Cuban father and an American mother. Senator Cruz was asked about his eligibility last night.
SEN. TED CRUZ: You know, back in September, my friend Donald said that he had had his lawyers look at this from every which way, and there was no issue there. There was nothing to this birther issue. Now, since September, the Constitution hasn't changed. But the poll numbers have. And I recognize - I recognize that Donald is dismayed that his poll numbers are falling in Iowa. But the facts and the law here are really quite clear. Under long-standing U.S. law, the child of a U.S. citizen born abroad is a natural-born citizen. If a soldier has a child abroad, that child is a natural-born citizen. That's why John McCain, even though he was born in Panama, was eligible to run for president. If an American missionary has a child abroad, that child is a natural-born citizen. That's why George Romney, Mitt's dad, was eligible to run for president, even though he was born in Mexico.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Ted Cruz went on to say Donald Trump might not even be eligible because his mother was born in Scotland. Also during the debate, moderator Maria Bartiromo of Fox Business questioned Trump about his call to ban Muslims from entering the United States.
MARIA BARTIROMO: Mr. Trump, your comments about banning Muslims from entering the country created a firestorm. According to Facebook, it was the most talked-about moment online of your entire campaign, with more than 10 million people talking about the issue. Is there anything you've heard that makes you want to rethink this position?
DONALD TRUMP: No.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Donald Trump. "No," he said.
For more on Thursday's Republican debate, we're joined by two guests. Katrina vanden Heuvel is with us, editor and publisher of The Nation magazine. And Tom Turnipseed joins us. He's a self-described "reformed racist." He was national director of segregationist Alabama Governor George Wallace's 1968 presidential campaign, but has since become a civil rights attorney and social justice activist. In the late 1990s, he was co-counsel in a lawsuit against the Ku Klux Klan for burning an African-American church in South Carolina and won a $37 million verdict against the Klan. He's also a former South Carolina state senator. And he's joining us from the state where the debate took place last night; he's joining us from South Carolina, from Columbia, the capital.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Actually, Tom Turnipseed, I wanted to begin with you. The debate took place in North Charleston, South Carolina, to be exact. We were just recently there in Charleston after the killing of the worshipers at Emanuel Church. North Charleston, though, which is a separate city, is where Walter Scott was killed by the officer, Slager, the African-American motorist who was shot in the back repeatedly. Set the scene for us for where this debate took place and the significance of the Republican debate happening in South Carolina, Tom.
TOM TURNIPSEED: Well, it's a larger venue, where they had it, you know, and I think it was appropriate, because it - being that North Charleston has the largest venue in the Charleston area, so it was pretty good for it. And, you know, South Carolina is a big deal in presidential politics. We have, you know, the third major focus primary. Of course, there's the caucus up in Iowa, and then New Hampshire and then down here in South Carolina. So, it's kind of a big deal.
AMY GOODMAN: Katrina vanden Heuvel, you heard that first clip that we just played about the eligibility of Senator Cruz, that Donald Trump first said it was not an issue, but now, because they are in a close contest in Iowa, continually raises.
KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: Well, first of all, I don't think any of them are eligible, considering the failure to address the real issues confronting this country, whether it be economic anxiety or racial injustice. But we need some resolution. There are a passel of constitutional lawyers who should be put in a room and come out and say something. But you saw Ted Cruz, very sharp-edged in this nasty, brutish and long overlong debate, come back swinging. But I don't think viewers come away with any better sense of it, except that - I really do mean what I said, which is that people - these candidates should be judged, it seems to me, on the issues, and not on this kind of new birtherism, which Donald Trump worked desperately against Obama right a few years ago. So...
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, it's interesting. Did they talk about Laurence Tribe?
KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: He's - yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: In this clip. But they talked about him in the debate last night with Donald Trump and saying that Laurence Tribe, who was Senator Cruz's professor at Harvard Law School, has - says the issue isn't settled. He even said, actually, surprisingly enough, of natural-born citizens - Tribe said it wasn't even settled, though more so with John McCain -
KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: - who was born in Panama -
KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: Panama.
AMY GOODMAN: - at the base. He says that one, while it seems more obvious, even that is not completely settled. But he says Ted Cruz, that's a question.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Right. Well, The Washington Post ran another op-ed piece this week also saying that there are legitimate questions that have not been resolved about what is the citizen's - what does natural-born citizen, as the Constitution defines it, mean, especially when you're dealing with territories, either - like in the Panama Canal Zone, it was a territory - it was a military base of the United States, but it was in a different country. And it's even been raised in terms of people born in Puerto Rico, that Puerto Rico is a - belongs to, but is not part of, the United States, according to the Supreme Court. So if you're born in Puerto Rico, can you legitimately run for president of the United States, even though you were born a citizen of the United States? So that there's - the question of what does natural-born citizen mean is still - apparently, hasn't been fully resolved, and it may take a Supreme Court case at some point or other to resolve it.
KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: I mean, I think it should be resolved, but is this the central, burning issue of a Republican debate? And, you know, it's - again, it's driven by Donald Trump, who just has the unerring ability, largely granted by media, to drive the debate. And it dominated last night in ways that I think excluded many other issues that a lot of people would have liked to hear.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Tom Turnipseed, I'd like to ask you about the Donald Trump phenomenon and how that might - the resonance it has for you to back to the 1968 campaign of George Wallace and how Trump appears to appeal to the same sort of sector of the society that Wallace appealed to back in 1968.
TOM TURNIPSEED: Well, it's basically - fear is what they use. Of course, a lot of people in politics use fear. But anyway, with Wallace, you know, it was fear of the African-American people, is what he did. They're a lot different in that Wallace was a, you know, kind of a poor, middle-class guy, and Trump is very, very wealthy. But Trump does the same thing with, you know, the Chinese and the Mexicans and so forth.
But, you know, let me jump to one other quick thing. The biggest trouble that what's-his-name has right now is - that Ted has, is Goldman Sachs. Big time trouble with the Goldman Sachs issue, who just paid this tremendous fine. And there's a movie out now called The Big Short. It's a big movie. And his wife worked for Goldman Sachs. And his involvement there, you know, with Goldman Sachs, is really substantial. I mean, it's a big, big issue that he's not going to be able to get away from. And I think that he - you know, he's just not really a populist, so to speak -
KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: Mr. Turnipseed -
TOM TURNIPSEED: - I mean, or anything close to it.
KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: Mr. -
TOM TURNIPSEED: He's tied in with the big, big money folks. I beg your pardon?
KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: I was going to say, Mr. Turnipseed is right on, because I think a lot of what Donald Trump is playing on is legitimate economic anxiety. Then you get the racial grievances. But I think there's a lot of us versus them, not left versus right, in this country. And Goldman Sachs, you just reported -
TOM TURNIPSEED: Oh, yeah.
KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: - just paid out a $5 billion fine today. It's at the heart of the financial crisis, which has ravaged people's pensions and home equity and their lives. And it's a sweetheart deal. It's emblematic of the very rigged system that Bernie Sanders rails against, and that when they try to, these so-called right-wing populists do, but it's going to hurt them. It's going to hurt them, it seems.
AMY GOODMAN: We're going to go to break and then come back to this -
TOM TURNIPSEED: Yeah, Cruz got a big loan. He got a big loan -
KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: Sweetheart deal.
TOM TURNIPSEED: - to run for the Senate. And his wife works there.
KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: Yeah.
TOM TURNIPSEED: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, we're going to continue this discussion, when we come back, with Tom Turnipseed, the former national director of the segregationist Alabama Governor George Wallace's 1968 presidential campaign. We're also joined by Katrina vanden Heuvel, who is the editor and publisher of The Nation magazine. And after we discuss the Republican debate, we'll talk with her about this rare primary endorsement that The Nation has made, one of only three times in The Nation's 150-year history. Stay with us.