GREENVILLE, South Carolina — The sudden death of Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia provided a rare moment of agreement among Republican presidential candidates before a debate here turned into the most bitter brawl of the cycle.
The candidates largely agreed that Scalia’s successor, who could shift the ideological balance of the court, should be nominated by the next president. Front-runner Donald Trump said he was certain Obama would make a nomination whether Republicans like it or not and called on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to slam the brakes.
“It’s called delay, delay, delay,” Trump said at the final Republican debate before the South Carolina primary.
Ted Cruz said Scalia’s passing underscored the high stakes of the 2016 election. The country is only “one justice away,” the Texas senator warned, of the Supreme Court striking down important decisions on issues like abortion and religious liberty.
John Kasich, fresh off a second-place finish in New Hampshire, and Jeb Bush also said the next administration should choose Scalia’s successor. Bush added that the president “of course” has the right to nominate a Supreme Court justice, but said he was certain Obama’s pick would not have consensus support.
“The next president needs to appoint someone with a proven conservative record similar to Justice Scalia,” the former Florida governor said.
Marco Rubio hailed Scalia as “one of the great justices of the history of this republic,” lauding the late Justice for consistently defending the “original meaning of the Constitution.”
But the consensus at the GOP debate on CBS News was short lived. One week ahead of the South Carolina Republican primary, the candidates clashed over their records, immigration, foreign policy and the legacy of former President George W. Bush.
Clashing over George W. Bush
One of the most electric — and personally charged— exchanges of the night took place between Trump and Bush over the legacy of George W. Bush, who will hit the campaign trail in South Carolina on Monday to stump for his brother.
Trump blasted the former president and called the war that he waged in Iraq a “big fat mistake.”
Bush hit back strongly, saying, “I’m sick and tired of Barack Obama blaming my brother for all of the problems” he faces. He then quickly turned the fire on Trump, saying, “While Donald Trump was building a reality TV show, my brother was building a security apparatus” to keep the country safe.
Trump lashed back, saying it was under Bush’s watch that the World Trade Center was attacked on September 11, 2001.
“That’s not keeping us safe,” he said, spurring the audience to boo loudly in disapproval of Trump.
Rubio joined in the conversation by coming to George W. Bush’s defense.
“He kept us safe and I’m forever grateful,” the Florida senator said, adding that the terrorist attacks of 2001 happened because Bill Clinton failed to kill Osama bin Laden when he had the chance.
Trump’s line of attack could serve to remind voters of Bush’s ties to the former president and revive hesitations about installing a political dynasty in the White House. But South Carolina is home to a large number of military personnel and veterans and Trump’s critique of the Iraq War could prove risky here.
Earlier in the debate, Bush and Trump clashed over the question of how to deal with Syria.
Bush accused Trump of promising to “accommodate Russia.”
When Trump hit back, saying, “Jeb is so wrong,” the audience again responded to the businessman with boos. “Jeb is so wrong. You’ve got to fight ISIS first.”
Bush came back at Trump, accusing him of getting his foreign policy advice from the “shows.”
“This is a man who insults his way to the nomination,” Bush said.
As they have in previous debates, Rubio and Cruz got into a cage match over their records on immigration reform.
When asked about his plan to curb illegal immigration, Cruz said there was a “sharp difference on immigration” on the debate stage, before delivering his first punch at Rubio on the issue.
“When Harry Reid and Chuck Schumer and establishment Republicans were leading the fight to pass a massive amnesty plan,” Cruz said he was on the side to defeat what he called the “Rubio-Schumer amnesty plan.”
Rubio accused his Senate colleague of spreading “lies.”
“He either wasn’t telling the truth then, or isn’t telling the truth now,” Rubio said. “To argue that he’s a purist on immigration is just not truth.”
When Cruz said Rubio has a long record of supporting amnesty and referenced comments he made on Univision, Rubio shot back: “I don’t know how he knows what I said on Univision because he doesn’t speak Spanish.”
Cruz quickly responded by speaking in Spanish.
‘Single biggest liar’
Rubio wasn’t the only one to call Cruz a liar. Moments later, Trump called the Texas senator “the single biggest liar.”
“This guy lied about Ben Carson when he took votes away from Ben Carson in Iowa,” Trump said, a reference to Cruz allies incorrectly telling voters on the night of the Iowa caucuses that Carson was dropping out of the race.
Trump went on to accuse Cruz of running robo-calls in South Carolina informing voters that Trump was not running in this state.
“This is the same thing he did to Ben Carson. This guy will say anything — nasty guy,” Trump fumed.
Cruz accused Trump of hypocrisy, noting that earlier in the campaign, the businessman had called Carson “pathological” and compared the retired neurosurgeon to a child molester.
Looking on at his rivals from the edge of the stage, Carson appeared amused by the vicious attacks — and said he had no intention of joining in the mud slinging.
“So many people have said to me, you need to scream and jump up and down like everybody else,” Carson said.
What’s at stake
For Bush, South Carolina is a state that both his father and brother won. The former Florida governor is looking to capitalize on George W. Bush’s popularity in the state by bringing the former president out to campaign with him for the first time Monday. Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina senator who ended his own bid for president in December, will campaign for Bush across the state.
Rubio also has reason to hope for a strong showing here. Some of his top campaign aides, including campaign manager Terry Sullivan, are Palmetto State veterans who have been laying the groundwork in the state for months. The Florida senator also earned the endorsement of two prominent members of Congress from this state: Sen. Tim Scott and Rep. Trey Gowdy.
The pressure is particularly intense Saturday for Rubio, who was rattled by former rival Chris Christie during a memorable moment at the last debate in New Hampshire.
For Kasich, South Carolina presents more of an uphill battle. The Ohio governor has largely campaigned on a moderate message, and though he is riding high from a second-place finish in New Hampshire this week, appealing to a more conservative base in South Carolina will be a tough task.
Carson’s path forward is unclear. He briefly topped national polls and was competitive in Iowa, where he appealed to the state’s large evangelical constituency. But after a series of missteps and the loss of top campaign staffers, Carson has not been able to regain momentum.