There were sparks all around in tonight’s GOP debate in Greenville, South Carolina.
Only six Republican candidates remain, and all six were present on the same stage for the first time this season. After a moment of silence for the passing of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, the questions immediately turned toward the serious issue of judicial appointments. As expected, many candidates expressed distress at the prospect of another Barack Obama appointee on the supreme court, while Jeb Bush was the only candidate who seemed to recognize the duties and responsibilities of a president and congress when it comes to the nomination process.
The candidates dedicated only a small amount of time to discussing topics of foreign and fiscal policy before a question from moderator John Dickerson tipped the conversation into wild and unforeseen territory. Dickerson asked Donald Trump his thoughts on whether or not former president George W. Bush should have been impeached over actions leading up to the Iraq War. Trump unexpectedly and shockingly chastised President George W. Bush for “lying” to the American public. Upon further exchanges between Trump and Jeb Bush, Trump went so far as to blame the president for not keeping the country safe, claiming that security briefings were ignored and that 9/11 occurred on Bush’s watch.
Also surprising were Trump’s comments concerning Planned Parenthood while in a sidebar debate against Ted Cruz. After having been criticized by the senator over his support of the institution, Trump tried to express the positive aspects that Planned Parenthood provides in areas of women’s health, another line that is in marked contrast to the traditional Planned Parenthood bashing, pro-life rhetoric that has become common fare during such engagements.
These declarations mark a significant departure from the traditional line of party unity that further challenges Trump’s assertion that he is a conservative. While Trump will likely use these exchanges to affirm his brand as an outsider and claim distance from the Washington establishment, the performance is likely to cost him votes in the highly conservative, highly military electorate of South Carolina.
By contrast, Jeb Bush and John Kasich had moments to shine during tonight’s debate. Jeb Bush was forced to defend his family from Trump attacks, a task he has been saddled with for many weeks on the campaign trail. Meanwhile, John Kasich, and to a lesser extent Ben Carson, tried to be calming voices of reason, beseeching the larger field to abstain from negativity and focus solely on issues.
While Jeb Bush certainly had his best debate of the season so far, the night goes to Marco Rubio for defying expectations. After a disastrous debate last week, Rubio overcame the disappointing performance that likely cost him votes and resulted in a disappointing 5th place finish in the New Hampshire primary. Tonight, Rubio spoke confidently on his stronger issues of immigration and foreign policy and managed to withstand all attacks. Rubio even sent a few jabs of his own to Ted Cruz, criticizing the senator’s lack of knowledge of Spanish (a claim which Rubio quickly proved false) and calling attention to Cruz’s list of sneaky and troubling campaign tactics.
In a state already known for its colorful political history, this Republican debate was an evening of boos, gasps, and unexpected turns as the remaining candidates buckle down for an exciting primary next weekend in South Carolina. With the passing of Justice Scalia, the stakes have never been higher for the selection of the Republican nominee. In light of the impending Supreme Court appointment and Trump’s damning critiques of the Republican establishment, it will be telling to see if the current frontrunner will be ousted from his position or if he stands to benefit from tonight’s performance. Stay tuned for updates and predictions throughout the week.