Splits on Iran, Cuba Dominate First GOP Presidential Forum

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The first 2016 presidential forum of the year revealed sharp divisions on foreign policy Sunday night, with Sen. Rand Paul breaking with his colleagues on both Iran and Cuba -- a split that’s likely to play out in detail over the next year.

Flanked by Sen. Ted Cruz and Sen. Marco Rubio, Paul joked when the panel’s moderator, ABC’s Jonathan Karl, asked a question about Cuba, “I’m kinda surrounded on this one.”

He was right. The night’s liveliest moments came when Paul said his colleagues in Congress should give the president negotiating space with Iran before imposing new rounds of sanctions.

“They’re saying you want 535 negotiators, not the president,” said Paul, R-Kentucky. “Diplomacy is better than war, and we should give diplomacy a chance.”

His fellow senators pounced. Cruz called Iran the “single greatest threat in the United States today,” and said the problem is trying to negotiate with Iranian leaders he called “radical Islamic nutcases.”

“When you have religious leaders who glorify death or suicide, ordinary cost-benefit analysis doesn't work,” said Cruz, R-Texas.

Rubio agreed that Paul is misguided in trusting the president that a true deal disarming Iran is even possible.

“I am a little cautious and perhaps skeptical about negotiating with someone who has said, either be with us or die,” said Rubio, R-Florida.

But Paul suggested that his colleagues would put the United States on a path to war.

“Many times in our fear and anger and distrust and we want to – you know, what are we going to do?” said Paul. “Are you ready to send ground troops into Iran? Are you ready to bomb ‘em? Are you ready to send 100,000 troops?”

Here's the exchange on Iran:

Similarly, on Cuba, Paul was more closely aligned with Obama than with his GOP colleagues. He called it a “form of isolationism” to be “retreating, not engaging” with other countries.

Rubio and Cruz, who are both Cuban-American, sharply if politely disagreed while sitting on opposite sides of Paul.

“It’s hard to argue that the president’s deal is a good one,” Rubio said.

Here's the exchange on Cuba:

The forum featuring the senators was the first such event of 2015. It was held barely 24 hours after the first major Republican showcase event of the 2016 campaign, at an all-day conservative gathering Saturday in Iowa.

Sunday night’s panel was sponsored by the Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce, a not-for-profit connected to Charles and David Koch that is holding a donor conference at an exclusive resort in Palm Springs.

The 75-minute forum featuring the three senators and Karl was the only portion of the conference that wasn’t shielded from the press and the public. Freedom Partners provided reporters a link to a private livestream of the event, and the first 15 minutes of the forum aired live at ABCNews.com.

The splits on economic and domestic policy were mild by comparison to those over foreign policy. All three senators indicated that they would reject a deal that would cut $10 in spending for every $1 in new taxes, though none of them directly answered the question.

That marks a potential split with former Gov. Jeb Bush. He said he would have taken such a deal back in 2012, after all of that cycle’s presidential contenders said in a highly publicized debate moment that they wouldn’t sign off on a trade like that.

“When and if any of the people up here run for president, there should be an absolute rule: No yes or no answers,” Paul said. He then indicated that he wouldn’t like such a deal. “I think we have plenty of taxes in this country.”

Cruz said that while it’s a question “the media likes to ask,” it represents a false choice.

“That trade-off has proven historically to be a fool’s errand,” Cruz said. “It’s a little bit like Lucy and the football. One element of the promise never happens.”

Rubio chimed in: “The only way you can get out of this problem is spending discipline, holding the line on spending, and rapid and dynamic economic growth.”

None of the three candidates directly answered whether they think there should be a federal minimum wage, though none advocated repealing it, either. They did agree that too many people make – as Cruz said – “zero dollars and zero cents” in an economy they don’t think the president deserves credit for improving.

“I think the minimum wage consistently hurts the most vulnerable,” Cruz said.

The debate also drew some agreement on the question of whether Mitt Romney should run for president again. Rubio was the most mild in his critique of the most recent GOP nominee, saying that he “ran the best race he possibly could,” and that he didn’t want to second-guess his campaign.

Paul referenced the fact that Romney’s wife is among those who have said they didn’t want him to run again: “I’m kind of with Ann Romney on this one – No, no, no, no, no.”

Said Cruz: “The reason Republicans lost can be summed up in two words: ‘47 percent.’ ”

In a reference to the crowd of some 450 well-heeled conservatives – including the Koch brothers themselves, who have emerged as among the largest financial forces in politics -- Karl asked at the end of the forum if the super-rich have too much influence in politics.

Rubio broke a long pause.

“As opposed to Hollywood or the mainstream media, you mean?” Rubio said. “I believe in freedom of speech.”

Cruz turned his fire on Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid, for suggesting that the Koch brothers are “nefarious billionaires.”

“Let me be very clear: I think that is grotesque and offensive,” Cruz said. “I admire Charles and David Koch. They are businessmen who have created hundreds of thousands of jobs.”

Rubio also shot back at the suggestion by some governors – including, notably, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker – that only someone who’s served in an executive capacity should be the Republican nominee next year. He said that only senators have the foreign-policy depth to navigate a complex world.

“Taking a trip to some foreign city for two days does not make you Henry Kissinger,” Rubio said.