For a few moments Saturday, the Republican presidential debate took on the air of a wrestling match — one with so many bouts they were difficult to keep separate.
At the center of them all was one man: Donald Trump.
There was Trump versus Jeb Bush. Trump versus the specter of George W. Bush. Trump versus Jeb Bush aided by Marco Rubio. Trump versus Ted Cruz. Trump versus a hostile audience that booed him, and booed him, and booed him again.
Suddenly, mainstream Republican fears about Trump’s dramatic rise — following his decisive win in last week’s New Hampshire primary — had a palpable sense of urgency.
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In the words of one of the candidates, Ohio Gov. John Kasich: “This is just crazy. This is just nuts. Jeez — oh, man!”
South Carolina, which hosted the debate in the GOP stronghold of Greenville, again lived up to its reputation as the premier stage for Republican rough-and-tumble campaigning. The boxing metaphors — jabs, punches, knockouts — so overused in politics for once seemed appropriate.
This is just nuts. Jeez — oh, man!
Ohio Gov. John Kasich
Six candidates were on stage — fewer than ever before on the GOP side this election cycle. Three were introduced as Floridians: Bush, Rubio and neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who retired to Palm Beach. Trump lives on Florida part-time, too.
The debate began on a somber moment of silence following the death Saturday of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, a conservative giant unanimously praised by the six candidates remaining in the race. None wanted the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate to confirm an Obama nominee to replace Scalia — unless, Bush and Kasich argued, the Democratic president makes a “consensus” pick.
Having dealt with the major news of the day, the candidates turned to the bloody fights they had prepared for ahead of the debate, the final one before the South Carolina Republican primary Feb. 20.
Bush took on Trump with more verve than ever before, trying to build on the fourth-place New Hampshire finish that gave the former Florida governor a new toehold on the race. He accused Trump of wanting to cozy up with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Trump tried to tie Bush to his brother’s unpopular wars in the Middle East — and hit Bush and his allies for spending millions on television ads against him. When the crowd jeered, Trump brushed them off as “lobbyists.”
“I could care less about the insults Donald Trump gives to me — it’s blood sport for him,” Bush said at one point, relishing the split-screen face-off with Trump that gave him more speaking time before voters.
“Spend a little more money on the commercials,” Trump spat back in another.
The tit-for-tat devolved into a blame game over the 9/11 terrorist attacks. “The World Trade Center came down during the reign of George Bush,” Trump growled, referring to the former president as a king.
I could care less about the insults Donald Trump gives to me — it’s blood sport for him.
In stepped Rubio to defend the Bush family, which remains quite popular among South Carolina Republicans: “The World Trade Center came down because Bill Clinton didn’t kill Osama bin Laden when he had the chance to kill him.”
Rubio needed to bounce back after faltering in the previous debate over his repeated talking points and acknowledging his poor performance contributed to his disappointing fifth place finish in New Hampshire. He was back in polished form Saturday, though he couldn’t avoid a skirmish with Cruz, the Texas senator Rubio’s campaign has seen as a long-term rival.
Cruz went after Rubio, hard, on immigration reform, which the Florida senator sponsored in 2013.
“Where were you in that fight?” Cruz said pointedly.
“We’re going to have to do this again?” an exasperated Rubio asked, countering that Cruz had either lied in 2013 — when he proposed an amendment that would have legalized immigrants in the country illegally — or is lying now when he says he only backed the amendment in a procedural effort to kill the legislation.
“Either he wasn’t telling the truth there, or he isn’t telling the truth now, but to argue he is a purist on immigration just isn’t true,” Rubio said.
And then Cruz, whose father is a Cuban immigrant, did something he rarely does. He spoke in Spanish.
Cruz, who has called his Spanish “lousy,” contended Rubio once gave a softer answer on immigration to a Spanish-language news network than he does in English.
“Ahora mismo, díselo ahora en español si quieres,” Cruz challenged Rubio. Right now, tell them now in Spanish, if you want.
Rubio didn't respond in Spanish.
But he had taunted Cruz about not being bilingual.
"I don't know how he knows what I said on Univision because he doesn't speak Spanish."
An earlier version of this article misstated when Rubio poked at Cruz for not being bilingual. It was before Cruz spoke in Spanish.