The CBS presidential debate in Greenville, South Carolina, started off with a moment of silence in memory of Justice Antonin Scalia, whose death was announced earlier in the day. And the debate that followed was a sort of tribute to the late jurist.
Not that Scalia was much talked about. Every candidate agreed that the Senate should not confirm an Obama nominee, and all but John Kasich promised to appoint a conservative originalist. But the back-and-forth had a certain resemblance to Supreme Court arguments in which Scalia typically peppered lawyers with sharp questions from the get-go.
The fireworks started on foreign policy, when Jeb Bush attacked Donald Trump for accommodating Russia in Syria and Trump argued we couldn't fight two wars at the same time: a substantive dispute over a current difficult problem.
Then Trump called the Iraq War a big mistake and went on to say George W. Bush lied and said there were weapons of mass destruction when he knew there were none. This was a Democratic meme and without merit: Every intelligence agency and Saddam Hussein's own generals believed he had WMDs.
But instead of pointing that out, Bush said his father was a great man and his brother kept America safe. To which Trump said, "The World Trade Center came down during your brother's reign. Remember that." Trump's attacks may have antagonized some Republican voters, and on a Sunday show he withdrew his charge that George W. Bush lied.
Trump later called Bush laughable and the weakest candidate. Bush said Trump disparaged women and John McCain, a parry that hasn't worked yet, and Trump seized on Bush's comment that if he mooned no one would notice.
But Trump's biggest target was Ted Cruz. "You probably are worse than Jeb Bush," Trump said. "You are the single biggest liar." Trump cited Cruz campaign emails and robocalls and called Cruz a "nasty guy," adding that it's no wonder Cruz doesn't have the support of a single Senate colleague.
This was strong stuff compared to Cruz's oblique characterization of Trump's trade policy as "pixie dust." But Cruz may have struck a nerve when he charged that the not-always-conservative Trump would appoint liberals to the Supreme Court.
"I am a conservative. Now, I also feel I'm a common sense conservative. Because some of the views I don't agree with," Trump himself said, defending his use of eminent domain; he also praised Planned Parenthood for good work on women's health. As FiveThirtyEight's Nate Silver noted, these are not stands that are popular with Republicans.
In earlier debates in New Hampshire and Iowa, Marco Rubio was the main target; less so in South Carolina. But when asked to define "amnesty," he launched into an attack on Ted Cruz. "We're going to have to do this again." A Cruz amendment included legalization of illegals and more guest workers, he said, and repeated his own pledge of no legalization or citizenship until a border wall, E-verify for job applicants and effective entrance-and-exit visa tracking were effective.
Less than 20 percent of Iowa and New Hampshire voters told exit polls that immigration was their top issue, but Rubio clearly realizes his lead role in the Gang of Eight bill in 2013 is a liability. His argument in effect is that Cruz is just as bad and that Cruz's assertion that he is rock solid against legalization is another lie.
Jeb Bush and John Kasich also chimed in on immigration, Kasich promising to pass a bill with a path to citizenship and Bush saying most illegals came because they "have no other choice" and should be given "a little more respect for the fact that they're struggling." Neither stand seems likely to appeal to many South Carolina Republican voters.
Going negative in a multi-candidate race is risky, because attacks can hurt the attacker. Trump took this risk, especially on attacking George W. Bush, and so did Jeb Bush, who hit the front-runner most often. Cruz, more a target than an attacker here, may have been hurt as well.
Rubio, less under attack, gave detailed responses on foreign policy, on defending his child tax credit, on turning welfare over to the states. He claimed to be the strongest general election candidate and was the only candidate to evoke Ronald Reagan.
He also deftly laced his comments with remarks designed to appeal to religious conservatives, citing Justice Scalia's same-sex marriage dissent, proclaiming that life begins at conception and that rights come from the Creator.
What's the result of all this back-and-forth? We'll know next Saturday night, when the South Carolina results come in.
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