The unprecedented cavalcade of presidential town halls continued on Wednesday night as Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and Ben Carson faced a CNN audience while Donald Trump spoke at a forum sponsored by MSNBC.
The candidates addressed the town halls one at a time, which kept the fighting and charges of "liar!” to a minimum, unlike at Saturday night’s combustible CBS debate. Still, there were interesting moments amid the bromides, talking points and obligatory scenes of candidates thanking citizens and complimenting them on their questions.
CNN’s Anderson Cooper mercifully set aside time for personal questions, which offered a different look at the candidates beyond their scripted policy positions. We learned Ben Carson plays pool to relax and listens to baroque music during surgery. Marco Rubio is color blind and met his wife at a sand volleyball game in West Miami. He also loves electronic dance music overlaid with clean lyrics. “It’s fun,” he said, noting his kids like it too. Ted Cruz said he laughed out loud when he received a cease and desist order from the Trump campaign asking him to take down an ad that suggested the real estate mogul favors legal abortion. He also sang a bit, a version of “I Just Called to Say I Love You,” an old tune he sometimes sings to his wife. Cruz also added that he drinks Scotch and plays Candy Crush on his iPhone.
CNN’s Cooper asked all of the candidates about whether Apple should be forced to open data under a federal court order after the shooting in San Bernardino, California. Rubio and Carson essentially fudged their answers, saying it’s a tough issue. Cruz took a harder line on Apple, saying the company should be compelled to turn over data and provide a “back door” to phones and computers under search warrants. “That’s a basic matter of keeping this country safe,” he said.
Trump also took a firm line. “I think it's disgraceful that Apple is not helping on that. I think security first, and I feel—I always felt security first. Apple should absolutely—we should force them to do it. We should do whatever we have to do,” Trump said.
On foreign policy, Cruz and Rubio, both of Cuban descent and strong critics of the Obama administration’s new policy with Havana, condemned the White House’s announcement that the president would be traveling to the Communist-controlled island in March.
Rubio said one of the only instances of bigotry he's faced occurred during the Mariel boatlift, when he was teased about his origins. He also decried the discrimination faced by minorities, noting an African-American police officer he knows has been pulled over by police seven times while driving. “What," Rubio asked, "is he supposed to think?”
On most issues, the candidates offered predictable answers. Rubio, for instance, vowed to protect entitlements but said benefits would change for those not approaching retirement.
There were, however, a few surprising moments. During a somewhat familiar defense of Second Amendment gun rights, Carson said the government shouldn’t be taking away guns, but “what they should be doing is offering free classes in gun safety to all of the citizens.”
The Republican candidates weren’t exactly brimming with kind words for either of their possible Democratic opponents, Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders. But Trump did note some similarities between himself and the Vermont senator. “He knows that our country is being ripped off big league, big league, on trade," Trump said. "The problem is, he can't do anything about it. He's not going to be able to do, whereas I'm going to do things.”
Both Cruz and Rubio said they oppose President Barack Obama submitting a nominee to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia. On women in the military, Cruz stressed he adamantly opposed the suggestion from Pentagon leaders that women should register for the selective service. “If I am elected," he said, "the president we will not be drafting our daughters into combat.”
With the frequency of debates and town halls, both seem to be capturing less interest from the public. The extraordinary 20-plus million audiences of the first GOP debates last year are a little bit off. Yet CBS still grabbed more than 15 million viewers for Saturday’s raucous debate. And the cable networks keep hosting town halls because they represent a substantial boost in ratings.
It's no wonder there are two more town halls on Thursday night, a Democratic one with Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders on MSNBC, and a Republican one on CNN with John Kasich, Jeb Bush and Donald Trump.