With the once-crowded Republican field now down to six, Saturday night’s GOP presidential debate became one of the most vicious of the contest. Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush, and Marco Rubio were all noticeably more aggressive in Greenville, while John Kasich and Ben Carson made calls for peace that will likely go unheeded.
“I think we’re fixing to lose this election to Hillary Clinton if we don’t stop this,” Kasich said of the infighting.
For the second debate in a row, the audience played a significant role in the tenor of the evening; Trump was booed loudly and repeatedly while Bush appeared to be the crowd favorite. Once again, Trump claimed the reaction was not spontaneous, accusing his rival of packing the crowd with “special interests and lobbyists.” Considering the gulf between Bush’s debate popularity and his poll numbers, it’s not the wildest conspiracy theory in the world.
Trump and Bush clashed fiercely on Middle Eastern policy. “Jeb is so wrong,” Trump said, referring to Bush’s strategy to defeat ISIS and take out the Assad regime in Syria. “You have to knock out ISIS. You decide what you have to do after. You can’t fight two wars at the same time.”
This led both men down the rabbit hole, with Bush openly mocking Trump for getting his foreign policy information from “the shows” and Trump criticizing Jeb’s older brother for lying the country into the Iraq War. Bush defended W., saying he kept the country safe, to which Trump responded: “The World Trade Center came down. That’s not keeping us safe.”
Rubio and Cruz went at each other with nearly the same ferocity, once again battling over their respective records on illegal immigration. Cruz noted a Univision interview where Rubio said he would not tear up Obama’s amnesty order on his first day, setting the Florida senator up for a pithy retort: “I don’t know how he knows what I said on Univision because he doesn’t speak Spanish.” Cruz then spoke some Spanish to prove otherwise. It seems unlikely, though, that South Carolina voters will give much weight to bilingual abilities when they go to the polls.
For much of the night, it seemed like the two frontrunners – Trump and Cruz – were going to avoid locking horns. If that was the plan, it might have been shaken by the breaking news of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s unexpected death. The subject of Scalia’s replacement became instantly relevant, leading Crus to suggest that Trump would put liberals on the court.
“You are the single biggest liar,” Trump replied. “You’re probably worse than Jeb Bush.”
After the first contests in Iowa and New Hampshire gave us wildly varied results, the South Carolina primary could clarify the course of the election. Trump is expected to win the state, but the establishment candidates are fighting hard to build a coalition to take him out. Right now, the smart money is on a Trump/Cruz/Rubio battle royal, but this election has been full of surprises – we’ve probably not seen the last of them.