Saturday night’s gathering of the remaining GOP presidential candidates was not a debate. It was a savage roar on the road to the White House as hopefuls shouted over each other, questioned each other’s character and, in one case, even went after a candidate’s mother.
The ruckus was, in many ways, overdue, delayed by the massive GOP field that only winnowed to a manageable number this week. But was it too late to throw up a roadblock between Donald Trump and his party’s nomination? Was this merely the multi-frontal war to oblivion that the Republican National Committee tried to avoid when it limited the number of sanctioned debates? Or was this simply the latest episode in the GOP’s reality-show-esque drama?
It was a furious night that found, for the first time, Trump squarely being piled on from all sides. Former Florida governor Jeb Bush excoriated his business record and foreign policy judgment, Texas Senator Ted Cruz suggested he would appoint liberals to the Supreme Court and Florida Senator Marco Rubio lambasted him for questioning the legacy of George W. Bush.
Trump alternated between condescending smirks and prickly interruptions, but it was clear he was getting his first real all-against-him attack. He did not enjoy it. Moderator John Dickerson of CBS News repeatedly mocked the spectacle, at one point telling a feuding Cruz and Trump, “Gentlemen, I'm going to turn this car around.”
But Trump was hardly the only candidate who left the stage in Greenville, S.C., bloodied. The candidates are increasingly desperate to find a breakout moment — often at their peers’ expenses. Ohio Governor John Kasich found his record on expanding Medicaid branded as expanding Obamacare, Trump and Rubio ganged up to call Cruz a liar, and Rubio was once again hit on his work on comprehensive immigration reform. Bush was called to defend his family’s legacy time and again.
The weaknesses of each candidate among conservatives had a searing spotlight aimed at them, just one week before South Carolina Republicans head to the voting booths.
South Carolina has an appetite for such intra-party sparring — in fact, the state rewards it. Voters here, in the first Southern state to have a nominating contest, want a fighter for a nominee. Spurious attacks are the norm, and harsh rhetoric helps candidates fare well. Just ask Newt Gingrich, who four years ago used a fiery tone to best Mitt Romney. From the debate hall, the South Carolina activists booed and cheered the candidates in an atmosphere that at times more closely resembled a Gamecocks game than a staid debate.
At different points, it was as if Trump were trying to lose support and goad the crowd into rowdiness. He mocked South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham, who has deep supporters in some corners. He praised Planned Parenthood, a bogeyman among conservatives. He defended eminent domain, called George W. Bush a liar and blamed him for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. He called the war in Iraq a folly — while standing on a stage in a state with the heaviest concentration of veterans in America.
It might not matter. Trump has a lead in the polls here. His deep pockets have not peer in this field. His crowds respond to his brazen style and in-your-face personality. Trump’s brand of personality-driven politics might be what Republicans decide they want in a nominee. It also might be the party’s undoing.
The debate marked the realization by more of his rivals that to win the nomination, they’ll have to get past Trump. Bush, for whom attacking Trump has nearly become a raison d'être for his candidacy, levied his harshest criticism of the candidate. Beating him, however, is not the most pressing goal, said former Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge, who was George W. Bush’s Homeland Security Secretary and a Jeb Bush backer. “We’re built for the long term, we’re financed for the long term,” he said, noting that relatively few delegates are yet actually being given to candidates.
“As of March 1, there will only be 5% of the delegates elected,” Ridge said. “He doesn’t need to beat Donald Trump. He’s already beaten Donald Trump in my eyes … We don’t need to beat Donald Trump here to accelerate the campaign.”
Rubio, recovering from a disastrous debate in New Hampshire, also saw an opening in joining Jeb Bush in defending his brother. “The World Trade Center went down because Bill Clinton didn’t kill Osama bin Laden when he had the chance,” Rubio said, saying he was glad the elder Bush had been in the White House than Al Gore. In a way, Rubio was a better defender of George W. Bush than was his brother.
Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, a Rubio supporter, said New Hampshire’s horrible debate for Rubio helped him shake off the stilted tone in time for his state. “Marco Rubio erased some of the [Trump] lead,” Scott said. “There’s no question that this is a new race. For the next seven days, we have an opportunity to close that gap.”
It will be difficult, if not impossible. It will also be brutal. Even Cruz, who spent much of 2015 in a détente with Trump, joined the fray, calling Trump a child for his interruptions and warning of dire consequences should he win. In the case of Cruz and Bush, the assaults coincided with new negative ads from their super PACs attacking Trump’s credibility.
Kasich, who sought to avoid attacking Trump as he complained about the negative tone of the campaign, posited that he was more electable than his rivals because he could appeal across the aisle. "I love these blue collar Democrats because they're going to vote for us next fall,” Kasich said in an unusual statement for a GOP primary. He tried to interject himself in the debate with calls for civility. Such moves gave him little enthusiasm in an otherwise uncivil debate.
Ben Carson, as is his wont, avoided engaging in the fray and spent much of his speaking time directing viewers to his website. He all but disappears during these debates, raising questions about how long his campaign can continue. Asked that question after the debate, the celebrated surgeon said he was continuing.
“[We’re going] to get in front of a lot of audiences, do a lot interviews, a lot of radio, a lot of newspapers, to give people a real understanding of what I’m about, what I’m talking about,” he said. And what policies will he be promoting? “I would ask you to go to my website, bencarson.com.”