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GOP Candidates Joust in South Carolina

(CN) - Just three weeks before the race for the presidency truly gets serious with the Iowa caucus, the Republican candidates for the job sparred in North Charleston, S.C., trading barbs over everything from Sen. Ted Cruz's citizenship to Donald Trump's anger with Muslims.

Thursday night's debate was sponsored by the Fox Business Channel. Despite the uncommon chill that has gripped South Carolina for much of the week, scores of protestors spent much of the day and a fair amount of the evening outside the city's coliseum and performing arts center complex brandishing signs revealing their sentiments.

"Don't believe the Liberal Media," read one.

"GOP: Owned by the NRA," proclaimed another.

Inside the debates transpired much as similar gatherings have since last summer. The primary difference Thursday was that the main debate, which kicked off shortly after 9 p.m., features only six candidates on the main debate stage.

Heading into the contest, most eyes, as they haven since the first of the six Republican debates held so far, were on billionaire Donald Trump.

On Monday, a South Carolina lawmaker introduced a resolution in the General Assembly aimed at declaring Trump unwelcome in the state, and on Tuesday, Gov. Nikki Haley, made veiled criticisms of Trump the centerpiece of her response to President Barack Obama's final State of the Union address.

Haley, who was delivering the official Republican response to the State of the Union had cautioned voters not to fall for the "siren call of the angriest voices."

Asked to respond, Trump said, "I will gladly accept the mantle of anger."

"I was not offended," he added.

Trump was less cordial to Sen. Ted Cruz, who recently questioned whether the Texas Republican, who was born in Canada to an American mother, is even eligible to serve as president.

The latest row between the two candidates came after moderator Neil Cavuto asked Cruz about Trump's assertions.

Cruz pointed to the candidacies of Sens. John McCain and Barry Goldwater, both of whom faced similar questions. McCain was born in the Panama Canal zone to American parents. Goldwater was born in Arizona before it was a state.

Cruz then went on to suggest Trump was merely trying to diffuse the Texan's surging candidacy.

"Since September, the Constitution has not changed, but the poll numbers have," Cruz said.

With that, Trump was off, warning Cruz that the Democratic Party is likely to bring a lawsuit against him if he is the Republican party's eventual nominee.

"You have a big lawsuit over your head; why are you running?" Trump asked, his face a mask of frustration and mystification.

"If you become the nominee, who the hell knows if you could even serve in office," Trump said.

To drive the stake in further, Trump cited the opinion of Cruz's former Harvard Law School professor Larry Tribe, who has also questioned Cruz's eligibility.

Cruz dismissed his former professor as "a left-wing judicial activist" who represented former Vice President Al Gore in the 2000 Bush v. Gore imbroglio.

Tribe, he said, is "a major Hillary Clinton supporter ... there's a reason Hillary supporters are echoing Donald's attacks on me."

Cruz added that he doesn't believe such a lawsuit by the Democrats would stand up in court.

The back and forth didn't end until Sen. Marco Rubio broke in.

"I hate to interrupt this episode of Court TV," he said, a wisecrack that brought loud cheers from the audience.

Rubio and the other Republicans on the stage preferred to focus their criticisms on the Obama administration and on former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, whom they hope and expect to challenge in the fall.

But Trump once again was the center of attention when Cavuto asked whether Trump planned to back off his call for a temporary ban on Muslims coming into the country.

"No," Trump said.

"We have to stop with the political correctness. We have to find out what's going on," he added, repeating a comment he's made several times on the campaign trail.

Former Fla. Gov. Jeb Bush retorted that such statements let alone such policies will not help defeat Islamic terrorists.

"You cannot make rash statements and expect the rest of the world to respond," Bush said.

By espousing such positions, Bush said, "We send a signal of weakness, not strength."

On Friday morning, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina formally endorsed Bush, whose father and brother both won the state's Republican primary on their respective ways to the White House. Graham, once a candidate for the presidency himself, dropped out of the race in December.

The South Carolina primary will be held on Feb. 20. It is the third contest in the race, after Iowa and the New Hampshire primary.

The next big political event in the state is only two days away.

On Sunday, Jan. 17, Clinton, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley will gather at the Gaillard Center in downtown Charleston for the NBC News-YouTube Democratic Candidates Debate, hosted by the Congressional Black Caucus Institute.

The debate will air live on the NBC network from 9:00-11:00 pm Eastern time.

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