By Jonathan Swan - 02/14/16 12:26 AM EST
The Republican presidential race took a turn for the vicious on Saturday in a slugfest debate that featured titanic clashes between Donald TrumpDonald TrumpThe Hill's 12:30 Report Warren: GOP ‘way too late’ attacking Trump Pollster: Clinton leads in 5 battlegrounds MORE and Jeb Bush and rivals Marco RubioMarco RubioMcConnell pledges redo vote on Zika after break Senate GOP campaign arm attacks Fla. Dem candidate over career The Trail 2016: Warren takes VP batting practice MORE and Ted CruzTed CruzTrump hires ex-Cruz aide as communications director Overnight Tech: Judiciary leaders question internet transition plan | Clinton to talk tech policy | Snowden's robot | Trump's big digital push Kasich doesn't expect to speak at convention MORE.
Only six candidates appeared on the South Carolina debate stage, with the field having been narrowed by the New Hampshire primary that Trump won in resounding fashion. The debate was held just hours after the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, a development that is reverberating across the country.
Of all the night's clashes, perhaps the most heated came when Trump went after Bush’s family — a risky political move, given that the Palmetto State is known as Bush country and former presidents 41 and 43 remain popular there.
The fireworks began when Trump was asked if he still believed, as he once said in an interview, that former President George W. Bush should have been impeached over the Iraq War.
The billionaire dodged the impeachment question but attacked the former president’s integrity, saying, “They lied, they said there were weapons of mass destruction, there were none and they knew there were none.”
The crowd began booing and the jeers escalated as Trump repeated a line he has used before about George W. Bush failing to protect the country from the 9/11 attacks.
“The World Trade Center came down during your brother’s [presidency] …remember that,” the real estate tycoon said as the crowd nearly drowned him out with boos.
Bush responded, “I am sick and tired of him going after my family. My dad is the greatest man alive in my mind and while Donald Trump was building a reality TV show, my brother was building a security apparatus to keep us safe.”
The former Florida governor added that his mother — whose role in the campaign Trump has also critiqued — “is the strongest woman I know.”
Trump butted in, “She should be running."
South Carolina is known for its dirty politics, and the candidates — with the exceptions of John Kasich and Ben Carson — appeared willing to get down in the mud.
At one point late in the debate so many candidates were talking aggressively over one another that CBS moderator John Dickerson said, “We’re in danger of driving this into the dirt.”
Fitting with the harsh tone of the event, there was also a concerted effort by Trump and Rubio to brand Cruz — who often paints himself as a lone conservative truth-teller — as a liar who will say anything to get elected.
“You are the single biggest liar,” Trump said to Cruz, after the Texas senator accused him of supporting federal taxpayer funding for Planned Parenthood.
At another point, Trump shouted over Cruz, “Why do you lie?”
Cruz replied, “Donald, adults learn not to interrupt each other.”
Rubio hit the same theme earlier in the night, saying, “For a number of weeks now, Ted Cruz has just been telling lies. He lied about Ben Carson in Iowa, he lies about marriage, he’s lying about all sorts of things.”
The fierceness of Saturday night’s exchanges reflected the high stakes in the race for the nomination.
As the third primary contest on the calendar, South Carolina could further whittle down the Republican field, particularly if Kasich, Rubio or Bush break out. Trump and Cruz are running first and second in polls of the state, respectively.
The CBS debate was not only the last time the candidates would be on stage together before the South Carolina primary but before the Nevada caucuses, too.
For Kasich, who finished last year with a paltry $2.5 million cash on hand, the debate was particularly crucial as he seeks to show his second-place showing in New Hampshire was no fluke.
The Ohio governor has been battered by Bush's super-PAC Right to Rise, which, sensing Kasich as a threat, has been spending against him.
But Kasich refused to engage in the melee, positioning himself as the high-minded optimist on stage. After Bush hit the governor for expanding Medicaid in Ohio, Kasich said, “The bottom line is the people of this country and this state want to see everybody rise and they want to see unity and I don’t want to get into all this fighting tonight.
“People are frankly sick of the negative campaigning and I’m going to stay positive about what I want to do.”
At another point, Kasich boasted about his appeal to Democrats — an unusual move in a Republican primary.
The debate in Greenville, S.C., was overshadowed to an extent by the death of Scalia, which was made public just a few hours before.
After a moment of silence for the justice at the start of the debate, the candidates quickly echoed GOP leaders in Congress in arguing that President Obama should not fill the vacancy on the high court during his remaining time in office.
Trump urged Senate Republicans to “delay, delay, delay” any action on a Supreme Court nominee.
Cruz turned Scalia’s death into a broad statement about the stakes of the election, saying America was “one justice away” from a Supreme Court that would undermine religious liberty, the right to bear arms and the anti-abortion-rights movement.
“The reason principle matters, sadly, was illustrated by the first questions today,” Cruz said later in the debate.
“The next president is going to appoint one, two, three, four Supreme Court justices. If Donald Trump is president he will appoint liberals.”