Republicans Clash In Ninth Debate
One week before the South Carolina Primary, the remaining Republican candidates for President clashed in a headed debate.
Republicans clashed in their ninth debate of the election cycle last night and, with the GOP field cleared of nearly all the also-ran candidates, the clashes seem to have become more fierce as the stakes have become higher:
Former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida blasted Donald J. Trump for insulting the Bush family and ridiculed the idea that Mr. Trump could be commander in chief during a contentious and sometimes nasty Republican presidential debate in Greenville, S.C., on Saturday, a week before a crucial primary in the state.
With Mr. Trump leading in the polls in South Carolina and elsewhere after his victory in the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday, he was a ripe target for his Republican rivals, especially Mr. Bush and Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, who are under intense pressure to halt his political momentum. But the vitriol was so intense that it seemed to surprise even Mr. Trump, a combative figure who had not been so roundly pummeled at a debate before.
After a somber opening to the debate that focused on the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, Mr. Bush aggressively took on Mr. Trump — an imperative for the former governor, given his poor showings in New Hampshire and the Iowa caucuses this month. Having helped raise more than $155 million, and with his family’s political reputation on the line, Mr. Bush had the look and feel of a man taking his last, best shot to rescue his candidacy and destroy Mr. Trump’s.
Mr. Bush bore into Mr. Trump’s knowledge and readiness to confront national security threats, noting that Mr. Trump had made positive remarks about Russia’s role in fighting the Islamic State in Syria.
“It is absolutely ludicrous to suggest that Russia could be a positive partner in this,” Mr. Bush said.
“Jeb is so wrong; Jeb is absolutely,” Mr. Trump said, before being cut off by boos from the audience. “You’ve got to fight ISIS first,” he added. “You have to knock them off strong.”
Mr. Trump drew more boos by attacking a South Carolina Republican, Senator Lindsey Graham, who is a Bush ally. Mr. Trump dismissed the catcalls from the audience by saying they were from Bush supporters, donors and Washington insiders. “I tell the truth, lobbyists,” Mr. Trump said.
Moments later, Mr. Trump stood by his past remarks that he would have supported the impeachment of President George W. Bush over the war in Iraq, saying that his administration misled the country about weapons of mass destruction. “They lied. They said there were weapons of mass destruction, and there were none,” Mr. Trump said.
His remarks drew a slashing attack from Jeb Bush, who is well aware that many South Carolina Republicans hold high opinions of President Bush as well as of their parents. “I’m sick and tired of him going after my family,” Mr. Bush said. “My dad is the greatest man alive, in my mind,” he added. “My mom is the strongest woman I know.”
“She should be running,” Mr. Trump said tartly.
The debate was also critical for Senator Marco Rubio of Florida after his disastrous turn in a face-off last weekend in New Hampshire, where Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey savaged him as scripted and callow after Mr. Rubio kept repeating the same stock attack on President Obama.
Mr. Rubio’s political momentum slowed after that, and he finished fifth in the primary there. In his concession speech, he promised supporters that he would not make the same mistakes in the debate on Saturday night. If he did not embarrass himself, he did not appreciably improve. As before, he spoke very quickly, in long sentences, rattling off national security challenges in Asia, the Middle East and Russia without pausing, a furious rush akin to spitting out words.
Mr. Rubio also briefly pounced on Mr. Trump during the exchange over President George W. Bush, not only on the subject of Iraq, but also on the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Mr. Trump disputed Mr. Rubio’s assertion that President Bush had shown leadership before the attacks.
“The World Trade Center came down during the reign of George Bush,” Mr. Trump said. “That is not safe, Marco.”
“The World Trade Center came down because Bill Clinton did not kill Osama Bin Laden when he had the chance to kill him,” Mr. Rubio said.
While all of the candidates seemed more animated during the forum, the dynamic seemed to revert to the early days of the campaign, when Mr. Trump’s presence, personality and blunt insults dominated the action.
Mr. Kasich, who has sought to portray himself as the most reasonable and centrist of the candidates, told the group at one point, “I think we’re fixing to lose the election to Hillary Clinton if we don’t stop this.”
The candidates also clashed sharply over immigration, which has emerged as the major policy flash point in the South Carolina Republican primary. Mr. Rubio, who sees Mr. Cruz and to a lesser extent Jeb Bush as his chief threats in South Carolina, attacked Mr. Cruz with the same talking points he had used all week, insisting that the Texas senator had held lenient positions on illegal immigration.
“I would note not only that Marco has a long record when it comes to amnesty,” Mr. Cruz said. “In the state of Florida, as speaker of the house, he supported in-state tuition for illegal immigrants. In addition to that, Marco went on Univision in Spanish and said he would not rescind Mr. Obama’s illegal exclusive amnesty on his first day in office.”
Mr. Rubio shot back, “I don’t know how he knows what I said on Univision because he doesn’t speak Spanish,” which prompted a brief reply in Spanish from Mr. Cruz.
While Mr. Trump was repeatedly dismissive of Mr. Bush’s political skills, portraying him as a loser whose supporters had spent more than $20 million on attack ads to little gain, he was even more scathing toward Mr. Cruz, who is regarded by the Trump campaign as its ultimate opponent. Mr. Trump appeared on the verge of losing his cool as Mr. Cruz invoked the death of Justice Scalia to warn that Mr. Trump would appoint “liberals” to the Supreme Court and brought up Mr. Trump’s past support for abortion rights.
“You are the single biggest liar,” Mr. Trump said, glaring at Mr. Cruz. “This guy will say anything. Nasty guy. Now I know why he doesn’t have one endorsement from any of his colleagues” in the Senate.
Yet when Mr. Trump went on to attack Mr. Cruz over his campaign’s attempt to undermine Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon, in Iowa, Mr. Cruz saw an opening and seized it.
“I will say it is fairly remarkable to see Donald defending Ben,” Mr. Cruz said, “after he called him pathological and compared him to a child molester, both of which were offensive and wrong.”
The Washington Post’s summary also emphasizes the fierceness of this debate compared to those in the past:
GREENVILLE, S.C. — The six remaining Republican presidential candidates sparred with ferocity over U.S. foreign policy in a debate here Saturday night, with front-runner Donald Trump savaging former president George W. Bush’s intervention in Iraq, which helped spawn more than a decade of instability in the Middle East.
In the most impassioned argument yet this year over the Bush legacy, Trump effectively set the past generation of Republican foreign policy ablaze by assailing the doctrine of forceful intervention, echoing views long held by many Democrats and drawing a fiery rebuke from Bush’s brother, Jeb.
Trump, using visceral and vitriolic language, blamed the 43rd president for not keeping the country safe from the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and alleged that he lied to the nation about the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
“Obviously the war in Iraq was a big, fat mistake,” Trump thundered. “George Bush made a mistake. We can make mistakes, but that one was a beauty. We should have never been in Iraq. We have destabilized the Middle East.”
Trump’s assault came as the former president is scheduled to return to the political arena Monday in North Charleston, S.C., for a campaign rally with his brother. Trump’s offensive sparked an electric series of exchanges with Jeb Bush, who condemned the billionaire mogul as an empty showman who lacks a serious worldview.
Bush accused Trump of mocking and tormenting his family as “blood sport.”
“I am sick and tired of him going after my family,” said Bush, a former Florida governor. “While Donald Trump was building a reality TV show, my brother was building a security apparatus to keep us safe.”
Bush’s rejoinder drew an endorsement from Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), who has an otherwise icy relationship with his onetime Florida mentor. “I thank God all the time that it was George W. Bush in the White House on 9/11 and not Al Gore,” Rubio said. “He kept us safe.”
Trump jumped in: “The World Trade Center came down during the reign of George Bush. He kept us safe? That is not safe.”
The crowd, dominated by hundreds of South Carolina Republican activists and donors, loudly booed Trump at various points. The front-runner pooh-poohed the audience, dismissing them as “Jeb’s special interests and lobbyists.”
Trump tried to channel both the frustrations of many Americans who are weary of more than a decade of war and the fears that people have about the threats posed by Islamic State terrorists.
“You have to knock out ISIS. They’re chopping off heads. These are animals. You have to knock ’em out. You have to knock them off strong,” he said. But, Trump added, “We’ve been in the Middle East for 15 years and we haven’t won anything.”
Given the stakes in play for many of these candidates, it’s not surprising that the battle on the debate stage would be a fierce as it was. Jeb Bush in particular faces a huge test in South Carolina after largely disappointing finishes in both Iowa and New Hampshire. This is one reason why, for example, why Bush is bringing his brother into the state to campaign for him. In nearly any other consequential primary state in the union, George W. Bush would arguably be as much of an albatross as he would a help even in a Republican primary. South Carolina is a state that Bush won quite handily in his nomination fight with John McCain in 2000, as did George H.W. Bush in his nomination battle with Bob Dole in 1988 and there is apparently still a lot of goodwill toward the Bush family in the state Additionally, South Carolina has a significant population of active duty and retired military among whom the 43rd President remains quite popular. Given that, bringing his brother in to campaign for him is overall a smart move for Bush given the fact that he needs a strong finish, or preferably a win, in the Palmetto State in order for his campaign to be able to credibly continue forward into March.
Trump, on the other hand, is playing what seems like the risky game of attacking a former President who remains relatively popular among Republicans, but there is arguably a logic to his attacks as well that could end up securing him a win that would make him seem like the near-inevitable Republican nominee for President. Like New Hampshire before, South Carolina is an open primary. This means that anyone can vote next Saturday. We already know that Trump draws a lot of his support from disaffected former Republicans and Independents, as well as members of the GOP base who largely have disdain for the establishment that the Bush family represents. Pushing Jeb Bush’s buttons in the debate in the manner, even to the extent of bringing up Iraq and the 9/11 attacks, could end up helping Trump far more than it hurts him. In either case, it was vintage Trump, and if there’s one thing we know about vintage Trump is that predictions that the way Trump acts in public are going to harm him should be immediately discounted.
In addition to the Trump-Bush clash, the clash between Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio that has been going on since November seems to be continuing in full force. Once again, the point of contention between the two candidates who stand closely matched in second and third place, albeit still far behind Donald Trump, in current polling. Unlike last week when Chris Christie managed to use his skills as a litigator to take Rubio down to such an extent that he likely influenced the outcome of the New Hampshire Primary, it does not appear that either Senator scored any significant points against the other, but the fact that both seem to realize that a solid performance in the Palmetto State is crucial to the future of their respective campaigns it is likely that these clashes will continue right up until the time voters go to the polls on Saturday.
As for the other candidate, John Kasich seems to be taking it upon himself to be the adult in the room, in that he once again spent much of the debate urging candidates to focus on the issues rather than on attacking each other In many respects, though, it seems clear that Kasich is looking beyond South Carolina toward the Midwestern primaries in the middle of March where his campaign seems to believe he can perform well based on his ties to the region and the fact that more divisive candidates like Ted Cruz are unlikely to resonate there in the same way they do in the south. Ben Carson, meanwhile, is clearly the candidate who doesn’t belong on the stage at this point. When he’ll realize that is an open question.
Going forward, of course, the real question is where the race in South Carolina is headed,and so far it still seems to be all about Donald Trump. Two polls released in advance of the debate — one that was commissioned by the South Carolina House Republican Caucus and the other from ARG — continued to show Trump with a decisive lead over his opponents, although the first poll showed John Kasich moving into second place ahead of Cruz and Rubio thanks to a substantial jump in the polls. Whether that number is an outlier or indicative of a significant post New Hampshire bump for the Governor of Ohio remains to be seen. With these polls factored in, RealClearPolitics now gives Trump a 19.3 point lead, with Cruz in second place with an average of 16% of the vote, Marco Rubio at 14% in third place, and Jeb Bush and John Kasich close together in fourth and fifth place at 11.3% and 11.0% respectively. We’ll likely see in coming days what impact the debate and other events, such as the death of Justice Scalia, have had on the race.