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Republican debates: Hopefuls talk vaccinations, foreign policy

Along with the back-and-forth bickering over Donald Trump, the Republican primary took a substantive and serious turn in Wednesday's prime-time debate, with candidates wrangling over Russia, Iran, immigration, vaccinations, abortion and gay marriage.

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Along with the back-and-forth bickering over Donald Trump, the Republican primary took a substantive and serious turn in Wednesday's prime-time debate, with candidates wrangling over Russia, Iran, immigration, vaccinations, abortion and gay marriage.

The policy focus marked a shift for a campaign that has so far revolved around the rise of Trump. The brash billionaire was still a target for the 10 other candidates joining him on stage, but the heavier policy focus had the effect of temporarily sidelining Trump after the debate's opening moments.

For most of the participants, the shift appeared to come as a welcome relief.

The debate was hosted and broadcast by CNN.

Republican U.S. presidential candidate and businessman Donald Trump points toward opponent and former Florida governor Jeb Bush as he makes a point during the second official Republican presidential candidates debate of the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

The policy debates still exposed rifts within the Republican Party, particularly the split between political outsiders and candidates with long resumés in Washington and governor's mansions.

Trump and Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard executive and only woman in the Republican field, emphasized how their business backgrounds would help them negotiate with difficult world leaders, including Russia's president.

"Vladimir Putin would get the message," said Fiorina, who was joining the main debate for the first time after a strong performance in an undercard event last month.

Trump, who has capitalized on his outsider appeal, said the three senators in the field — Marco Rubio, Rand Paul and Ted Cruz — bore some responsibility for the unabated violence in Syria. He said as president, he would have gone in with "tremendous force" when the Syrian regime used chemical weapons.

Republican U.S. presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson speaks during the second official Republican presidential candidates debate of the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign. Carson is second to Trump in recent polls. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

On Iran, the candidates were split on whether they would tear up U.S. President Barack Obama's nuclear accord with Iran if elected.

Former Florida governor Jeb Bush and Ohio Gov. John Kasich took a measured approach, saying ripping up a deal agreed to not only by the U.S. but also several allies was not a strategy for stopping Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.

In an exchange on gay marriage and religious liberty, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee argued forcefully for the right of Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis to defy the Supreme Court's decision legalizing gay marriage.

"I thought that everyone here passed ninth grade civics. The courts can't legislate," he said. "I thought we had three branches of government."

Huckabee declined to criticize Bush for saying Davis did not have the right to deny gays marriage licences. Bush said he supports defending the rights of religious people to refuse to endorse gay marriage, but he said someone else in Davis's office should sign the certificates since the Supreme Court ruling is the law of the land.

"I think there needs to be accommodation for someone acting on their faith," he said.

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Fiorina vs. Trump

Even as Trump faded somewhat in the policy discussions, he was hardly invisible in the debate. He praised himself while deriding his rivals in the opening minutes of the debate at the Reagan Presidential Library in southern California.

Standing at centre stage, Trump said he had a "phenomenal temperament" and a record in business that would help him on the world stage. With his signature brashness, he immediately took on his rivals, saying Kentucky Senator Paul didn't deserve to be on the crowded debate stage.

Trump has become increasingly critical of Fiorina as her standing has risen. He was quoted in a recent Rolling Stone magazine profile making derogatory comments about her looks, though he later denied he was referring to her appearance.

Asked about Trump's comments, Fiorina said, "I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said."

Trump responded by calling Fiorina a "very beautiful woman."

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Vaccination debate 

Trump stoked the furore against vaccinations, giving new voice to the widely discredited theory that they cause autism.

He said he backs vaccinating children over longer time periods and in smaller doses.

"You take this little beautiful baby and you pump — I mean, it looks just like it's meant for a horse, not for a child," he said.

Medical experts have repeatedly rejected any link between the scheduled shots and higher rates of autism.

When asked about Trump's theory, former neurosurgeon Ben Carson joked, "He's an OK doctor."

Carson agreed vaccines should be more spread out but stressed there is no proven link between vaccinations and autism.

Huckabee said the U.S. should place greater focus on curing diseases like diabetes. He asks, "Why doesn't this country focus on cures rather than treatment?"

Carly Fiorina says her business experience would help her negotiate with difficult world leaders like Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press)

Planned Parenthood a target

Fiorina said Republicans in Congress should stand fast on defunding Planned Parenthood even if it triggers a government shutdown.

She said undercover videos of Planned Parenthood officials purportedly selling fetal organs make it a moral imperative to do anything possible to stop the organization. Planned Parenthood says it provides fetal tissue for medical research, charging a small fee to cover costs.

Fiorina said, "This is about the character of our nation."

She won the first standing ovation of night when she added, "If we will not stand up and force President Obama to veto this bill, shame on us."

Bush also condemned Planned Parenthood and defended his statement that the federal government should spend less on women's health care. He said he was talking specifically about Planned Parenthood, but he has been attacked repeatedly by Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton for the line.

Republican U.S. presidential candidates Ohio Gov. John Kasich, left, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie react during the second official Republican presidential candidates debate of the 2016 race. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

Christie touted his anti-abortion record, but stopped short of saying he would shut down the government to defund Planned Parenthood.

Asked three times whether he would press to defund the women's health organization even if it results in a government closure, Christie punted on the question.

Christie says he would put it "on the list" of issues that Republicans should use to force a compromise from  Obama, along with tax legislation.

Christie has described the past government shutdown, which Republicans forced in a bid to derail the Affordable Care Act, as a political misstep for the Republican Party.

2nd-tier candidates spar

Earlier in the evening, the four lowest-polling candidates — Rick Santorum, Bobby Jindal, George Pataki and Lindsey Graham —  participated in what's called the "kid's table" or "undercard" debate, which was also broadcast by CNN. 

Asked about the continuing crisis in Syria, Jindal said allowing more refugees to come to the United States is not the answer, Jindal, the governor of Louisiana, said during the second-tier debate. The answer is to hunt down and "destroy" ISIS and replace Syrian President Bashar Assad, he said.

"Our friends don't trust us and our enemies don't fear us," he said. 

South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham said blame for the crisis rests with Obama. He said the president's policies for combating Islamic terrorists are not working, and he stressed the need for American troops on the ground in Iraq and Syria.

In another hot-button issue, Graham and Santorum argued vigorously over immigration reform.

Graham supports allowing people in the country illegally to stay, arguing in part that Hispanic voters are an untapped source for Republicans.

"In my world, Hispanics are Americans," Graham said.All four candidates said they would secure the border and crack down on local officials who opt not to prosecute illegal immigrants.

Republican U.S. presidential candidates (L-R): Former New York governor George Pataki; former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum; Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham were in the debate between the lowest polling candidates. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

With files from CBC News

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