Las Vegas - The undercard Republican debate at the Venetian hotel featured a lively argument over national security as four low-ranking presidential candidates split sharply over issues like surveillance, Donald Trump's proposed Muslim travel ban and the broad character of the Islamic faith.
Sen. Lindsey Graham and former New York Gov. George Pataki sharply criticized Trump's call for a temporary halt to Muslims entering the country, arguing that it ran counter to American values at home and would alienate Muslim allies abroad. By contrast, former Sen. Rick Santorum and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee defended Trump's broader criticism of Islam while calling for harsher measures to root out potential terrorists in Muslim communities.
Pataki called Trump "the know-nothing candidate of the 21st century," referring to the 19th century anti-Catholic movement, and said he "continuously demonizes and demeans millions of Americans and, when confronted about it, laughs it off."
Graham stridently defended ordinary Muslims throughout the debate even as he called for a sweeping military campaign to defeat radical Islamic groups in Iraq and Syria. He warned that Trump's rhetoric sent a dangerous message.
"How do you think the king of Jordan must feel to hear that?" Graham said. "He is our friend, he is our ally. This is not a way to make America safe, this is a way to help our enemies."
By contrast, Santorum earned applause as he strongly defended Trump even though he said he disagreed with the particulars of his proposal.
"He brings up a very important issue that I think we've been ignoring far too long in this country," Santorum said.
Huckabee suggested government officials should more actively investigate mosques for signs of radicalism. He added that Muslims should welcome the opportunity to preach to federal agents.
"If Islam is as wonderful and peaceful as its adherents say, shouldn't they be begging us to all come in and listen to those peaceful sermons … so we'd all want to convert to Islam?" he said.
Graham, who appeared visibly exasperated with his rivals' comments, followed Huckabee's answer by directly thanking the 3,500 American Muslims serving in the armed forces.
"Thank you for your service," he said. "You are not the enemy. Your religion is not the enemy."
The candidates split over strategy in Syria and Iraq. Graham called for a major infusion of ground forces, rebutting Santorum's emphasis on training Syrians. Huckabee said he would not try to remove Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad from power. Graham said the policy would be "disastrous" and argued Assad's exit was necessary to end the civil war and cut off support for ISIS.
Graham said he blamed President Obama for the rise of the Middle Eastern terror group.
"I miss George W. Bush," he said. "I wish he were president right now."
On the topic of Syrian refugees, Santorum said there was "no possibility" to adequately vet people enough to ensure they were not a threat. Pataki said he favored creating a no-fly zone in Syria to protect displaced persons within the country rather than bringing in the 10,000 refugees the Obama administration plans to accept.