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Rubio, under pressure from Rand Paul, shows he can throw a punch

·Chief National Correspondent
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Marco Rubio has excelled at staying positive in the presidential campaign debates, but on Tuesday night, the Republican senator from Florida showed that he can throw a punch, tagging Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., with a label sure to sting: “isolationist.”

The confrontation began — as it often does in Republican primary debates —with a question about taxes and spending, and an argument over who is the most conservative. Paul took Rubio to task over the spending figures in his tax reform plan and his military spending proposal.

Paul called Rubio’s proposal for an increase in the child tax credit “a welfare transfer payment.”

“Is it conservative to have a trillion dollars in transfer payments, a new welfare program?” Paul asked. “Add that to Marco’s plan for a trillion dollars in new military spending, and you get something that looks to me not very conservative.”

Rubio has come under some criticism from conservatives for his proposal to increase the child tax credit by $2,500, and for the $6 trillion hit on revenues for the federal government that his overall plan represents.

And as Paul pressed him, Rubio was on his heels, for really the first time in one of the nationally televised debates. He launched into an answer that had an element of filibuster to it, arguing that increasing the child tax credit would be strengthening nuclear families, which he called the nation’s “most important institution.”

“How is it conservative?” Paul called out from Rubio’s left.

Rubio, who in the last debate easily deflected an attack from Jeb Bush with a genial gibe suggesting that Bush was being misled by his advisers, lashed out at Paul with a political label that probably angers Paul more than any other.

“I do want to rebuild the American military,” Rubio said, switching the topic to defense spending in order to deliver his punch. “I know that Rand is a committed isolationist. I am not.”

“Isolationist” is a slur for Paul, who has exhibited some tendencies in that direction in his young political career, but has worked to paper them over. His foreign policy is now mostly noninterventionist, but reflects a willingness to use military force abroad in some circumstances.

Rubio went on to declare that “The world is a stronger and a better place when the United States is the strongest military power in world.”

Paul ignored the gibe and pressed his attack on Rubio’s fiscal policies.

“Marco, Marco, how is it conservative to add a trillion-dollar expenditure to the federal government that you’re not going to pay for?” Paul said. “How is it conservative to add a trillion dollars in military expenditures? You cannot be a conservative if you’re going to keep promoting new programs that you’re not going to pay for.”

It was not the first time the two senators have clashed on this issue. Back in March, Paul called Rubio and fellow presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, “reckless” and “irresponsible” because they had voted to spend more federal dollars on defense without cutting spending elsewhere.

Rubio tried to end the exchange by talking again about the United States’ need to maintain its status as a military superpower. “We can’t even have an economy if we’re not safe,” he said. Rubio cited examples of global threats uppermost in the minds of many Americans: “There are radical jihadists in the Middle East beheading people and crucifying Christians; a radical Shia cleric in Iran trying to get a nuclear weapon; the Chinese are taking over the South China Sea.”

But Paul, eager to get into the guts of a matter he feels strongly about, and more engaged than he has been in some of the previous debates this cycle, would not let Rubio drop it.

“I do not think we are any safer from bankruptcy court,” Paul said. “As we go further and further into debt, we become less and less safe.”

“This is the most important thing we are going to talk about tonight: Can you be a conservative and be liberal on military spending?” Paul asked. “Can you be for unlimited military spending and say, ‘Oh, I’m going to make the country safe’? We need a safe country. But you know, we spend more on our military than the next 10 countries combined. I want a strong national defense, but I don’t want us to be bankrupt.”

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