Mr. Trump and Mr. O’Rourke focused on border security and gun control in a 90-minute exchange that repeatedly moved in a confrontational direction but generally contained few new or important revelations.
Brought on by Mr. O’Rourke, the debate’s second half was focused on immigration, with Mr. Trump defending his plans to build a wall on the border and the former congressman hammering him about his reluctance to go after Central American gangs such as MS-13.
“This is his strongest suit,” Mr. O’Rourke said. “This is what he’s campaigning on. And let’s go right to the chase, and ask, why hasn’t he condemned the culture and the language and the gangs of MS-13?”
Mr. Trump sought to calm fears, saying, “What I want to do is keep our communities safe.”
Mr. O’Rourke also tried to undermine Mr. Trump’s argument that the United States no longer needs the structure of the 9/11 attacks after almost 16 years of war, calling it “unbelievable” that Mr. Trump is suggesting that a raid from which 1,200 young men died is unnecessary.
Mr. Trump and Mr. O’Rourke repeatedly attacked each other’s history as politicians.
Mr. Trump, invoking the shooting of Rep. Steve Scalise, a Louisiana Republican, two years ago, asked Mr. O’Rourke if he would like to bring back the death penalty, even if it meant criminals who couldn’t be saved from execution. “I would love to see them executed,” Mr. O’Rourke said.
In response, Mr. Trump called Mr. O’Rourke “weak” on crime and immigration, saying that he disagreed with the former congressman’s “hawkishness.”
“Are you going to have all those people in our country that you’re promising you’re going to have, that’s so wrong,” Mr. Trump said.
“I’m not going to be weak on crime. I’m not going to be weak on illegal immigration,” Mr. O’Rourke replied.
Mr. Trump also had some tough words for Bill and Hillary Clinton, suggesting that Bill Clinton’s policy proposals on health care may not have helped the families of shooting victims.
“Hillary’s taking money from [anti-gun groups] and the Democrats and is totally against guns. I’m a National Rifle Association member. I wouldn’t want Hillary Clinton with the nuclear codes.”