Former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida blasted Donald Trump for insulting the Bush family and ridiculed the idea that Trump could be commander in chief during a sometimes nasty Republican presidential debate in Greenville, South Carolina, on Saturday, a week before a crucial primary in the state, where the popularity of the Bushes and the importance of the military are critical factors for Republicans.
With Trump leading in the polls in South Carolina and elsewhere after his victory in the New Hampshire primary Tuesday, he was a ripe target for his Republican rivals, who are increasingly concerned about his political momentum.
After a somber opening to the debate that focused on the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, Bush aggressively took on Trump — an imperative for the former governor, given that the South Carolina primary has become make-or-break for his candidacy after poor showings in New Hampshire and the Iowa caucuses this month.
Bush bore into Trump’s knowledge and readiness to confront national security threats, noting that 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,’’ Bush said.
“Jeb is so wrong; Jeb is absolutely wrong,’’ Trump started, before being cut off by boos and jeers from the audience. “You’ve got to fight ISIS first,’’ he added. “You have to knock them off strong.’’
Trump drew more boos by making an odd attack on a Bush ally, Sen. Lindsey Graham, the senior Republican senator from South Carolina. Trump dismissed the catcalls from the audience by saying they were from Bush supporters, donors and Washington insiders. “I tell the truth, lobbyists,’’ Trump said.
Moments later, 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,’’ 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,’’ 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,’’ Trump said tartly.
Attacking the honor and record of the Bush family amounted to one of the biggest risks that Trump had taken during the presidential race, given that Bush and his super PAC are spending heavily to win the South Carolina primary and that Bush advisers believe that Trump is vulnerable here.
Trump’s florid reputation, past support for abortion rights and harsh language — including a vulgarity he used last week about Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas — could alienate social conservatives and establishment Republicans in the state, according to Bush advisers. While Bush has assailed Trump in the past and described him as all but unqualified for the presidency, the Saturday debate was his most forceful performance of the race.
The debate was also critical for Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida after his disastrous performance in a faceoff last weekend in New Hampshire, where Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey savaged him as scripted and callow after Rubio kept repeating the same stock attack on Obama.
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 Saturday night. While Christie was not onstage to torment Rubio again, having dropped out of the race after New Hampshire, Rubio’s performance was not notably different. As before, he spoke very quickly, in long sentences, and seemed to be delivering prepared remarks about Scalia’s life and rulings, like praising the justice’s opposition to the Supreme Court ruling last year that legalized gay marriage. He also rattled off national security challenges in Asia, the Middle East and Russia without pausing, a furious rush akin to spitting out words.
Rubio also briefly pounced on Trump during the exchange over President George W. Bush, not only on the subject of Iraq but also on the Sept. 11 attacks. Trump disputed Rubio’s assertion that George W. Bush had shown leadership before the attacks.
“How did he keep us safe when the World Trade Center came down?’’ 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,’’ Rubio said.
The death of Scalia briefly injected a new seriousness into a Republican nomination fight that has been rambunctious and unpredictable ever since Trump upended American politics last summer by building a formidable lead in national opinion polls despite a series of harsh comments about Mexicans, women, Sen. John McCain, and others.
The six candidates were generally in agreement that the Republican-led Senate should try to block any nomination by Obama to replace Scalia, although some of them acknowledged that, if they were president, they would act on their constitutional authority to try to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court.
“If I were president now, I would certainly want to try to nominate a justice,’’ Trump said. “I think he’s going to do it whether I’m OK with it or not. I think it’s up to Mitch McConnell and everybody else to stop it. It’s called delay, delay, delay.’’
Gov. John Kasich of Ohio struck a somber note, saying he was disappointed that Scalia’s death had turned into a partisan fight about filling the vacancy on the court. He argued that Obama should pick a candidate who would receive “unanimous approval’’ from both parties, or else forgo naming a candidate. “I wish we hadn’t run so fast into politics,’’ Kasich said.
While all of the candidates seemed more energized during the forum, the dynamic seemed to revert to the early campaign, when Trump’s presence, personality and blunt insults dominated the action. Trump said at one point of Cruz, “You are the single biggest liar,’’ and later called him “a nasty guy.’’
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 flashpoint in the South Carolina Republican primary. Rubio, who sees Cruz and to a lesser extent Bush as his chief threats in South Carolina, attacked 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,’’ 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 President Obama’s illegal exclusive amnesty on his first day in office.’’
“I don’t know how he knows what I said on Univision, because he doesn’t speak Spanish,’’ Rubio shot back.
Trump and Bush also bashed each other on illegal immigration — an issue they have grappled over for months, but in sharper language that reflected the high stakes of the race with the South Carolina primary looming.
“The weakest person on this stage by far on illegal immigration is Jeb Bush,’’ Trump said. Then, with a derisive tone, he tweaked Bush over a line he once used about illegal immigration. “They come out of an act of love,’’ he said. “Whether you like it or not, he is so weak on illegal immigration, it’s laughable and everybody knows it.’’
Bush again hit Trump hard. “If you want to talk about weakness, it’s weak to disparage women, it’s weak to disparage Hispanics, it’s weak to denigrate the disabled,’’ Bush said. “And it’s really weak to call John McCain a loser because he was a POW. That is outrageous. He’s an American hero.’’
The debate — the ninth of the Republican nomination race and, with six contenders, the smallest so far — was the candidates’ final televised faceoff before the South Carolina primary, the Nevada caucuses and the Super Tuesday contests in Georgia, Tennessee, Texas and other states on March 1.
Only three or four of the Republicans are expected to remain in the race after those votes because of the inevitable pressure on poorly performing candidates to drop out and allow their donors and supporters to coalesce around stronger rivals. Trump and Cruz are likely to be running after Super Tuesday, given their financial resources and relatively solid numbers in public opinion polls in states with February and March contests.