Splits on Iran, Cuba Dominate First GOP Presidential Forum

Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and Rand Paul participated in debate.

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.

“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.”

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

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.’ ”

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.