GOP Debate - 021316

Republican candidates prepare to debate in South Carolina

Seema Mehta, Noah Bierman and Evan Halper
February 13, 2016

The six Republicans running for president called one another liars 22 times, insulted each other’s families and even screamed at one another in Spanish as the party’s fierce battle over its identity crescendoed in their latest debate Saturday night.

The ninth GOP debate was the smallest, with the remaining candidates pressed to perform ahead of Saturday’s primary in South Carolina or risk losing relevance and being forced to drop out. The forum may also have been the least civil.

Donald Trump and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush encapsulated the GOP’s long-running schism between its establishment wing and its rebellious insurgency in a single raw and unusually personal exchange over the war in Iraq and the legacy of the George W. Bush era.

“The war in Iraq was a big, fat mistake,” said Trump, the celebrity business mogul and front-runner for the Republican nomination.

“They lied,” Trump continued. “They said there were weapons of mass destruction. There were none.”

The audience booed. Trump lashed back, calling its members “Jeb’s special interests” and lobbyists.

Bush, defending his family, responded with uncharacteristic intensity.

“While Donald Trump was building a reality TV show, my brother was building a security apparatus to keep us safe,” he countered.

Trump shot back that President Bush’s efforts did little good, pointing to the destruction of the World Trade Center towers in the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. The crowd booed again.

The exchange finally ended when moderator John Dickerson turned to former Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who expressed astonishment at what had just happened.

“This is just crazy,” he said. “This is just nuts. Jeez, oh man.”

The rapid-fire argument was perhaps the nastiest in a night that featured several as the freshly rescrambled field campaigns in South Carolina, where some candidates are making what could be their final stand in the effort to take down Trump.

The death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia on Saturday also brought urgency to the debate, as the presidential hopefuls sought to position themselves as the party’s best hope of preserving his unyielding conservative legacy.

The loss of a leading conservative voice on a court narrowly divided along ideological lines brought the issue of electability to the forefront of the bitterly contested race. With Scalia’s loss, conservatives no longer have a court serving as a bulwark against certain liberal policies of the Obama administration.

“His loss is tremendous,” said Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida. “He will go down as one of the greatest justices in the history of this republic.”

The appointment of a Supreme Court justice is one of the most enduring legacies of any president, and it is likely to motivate the core voters in both parties, who hold the greatest sway in presidential primary elections.

Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas immediately reinforced his image as a conservative warrior, assuring the audience that he would lead the fight to resist any nominee President Obama might send to the Senate, and demanding Scalia’s replacement be chosen by the next president.

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