The final Republican debate before the crucial South Carolina primary was perhaps the rowdiest to date, with intense verbal firefights erupting between Donald TrumpDonald TrumpJan. 6 panel faces double-edged sword with Alex Jones, Roger Stone Trump goes after Woodward, Costa over China Republicans seem set to win the midterms — unless they defeat themselves MORE and Jeb Bush in particular — though Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzGOP holds on Biden nominees set back gains for women in top positions Advocates see pilot program to address inequalities from highways as crucial first step Ted Cruz ribs Newsom over vacation in Mexico: 'Cancun is much nicer than Cabo' MORE and Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioRubio: Dropping FARC from terrorist list threatens Colombians, US security This Thanksgiving, skip the political food fights and talk UFOs instead Human rights groups sound alarm over Interpol election MORE got in on the action too.
South Carolina has a reputation for boisterous politics, and that was underlined once again on Saturday night. The tussles on-stage were met by loud booing on occasions from the audience in Greenville, especially directed toward Trump.
Palmetto State Republicans are getting ready to go to the polls next Saturday, Feb. 20. Who boosted their chances, and which candidates missed an opportunity?
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush
Bush delivered his best debate performance when he needed it most.
He stood up to Trump far more effectively than during any previous clash and seemed to get under the business mogul’s skin at times.
Repeatedly, he sought to undercut Trump’s self-image as the ultimate winner, assailing him as “weak” for his remarks on women and the disabled; as the owner of “failed casinos” in Atlantic City, N.J., and as “a man who insults his way to the nomination.”
The fire in Bush’s belly also helped him edge out one of his major rivals for establishment voters, Marco Rubio. That could be important since, of the three major polls of GOP voters in South Carolina conducted since last week’s New Hampshire primary, Bush lags Rubio in two and is tied with him in the third.
There is still a question mark over how many GOP voters this year are open to backing a pillar of the establishment such as Bush. But this was a very strong night for him.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich
In a debate that was notable mostly for the sheer volume of mud that was thrown, Kasich was the one major candidate who chose to stand aside.
“People are, frankly, sick of the negative campaigning and I am going to stay positive,” he said at one point.
Kasich’s appeal is that of a pragmatic governor of a bellwether state. He showcased that side of himself again on Saturday arguing, for example, that it made more sense to help drug addicts get treatment while in prison than for the state to have to foot the bill for lengthy "revolving door" periods of incarceration.
“I think I’m a uniter; I think people sense it,” Kasich said at one point on Saturday evening.
One post-New Hampshire poll showed an especially sharp rise in his support in South Carolina. He remains highly unlikely to win the state but his debate performance could at least help him prolong his momentum after placing second in the Granite State.
Businessman Donald Trump
As ever, Trump is the most difficult candidate to judge. His entire candidacy has been conducted in defiance of political norms, yet he has sat atop national GOP polls for months. He is also way ahead in South Carolina, with an average lead of more than 18 points in the three post-New Hampshire polls.
With a polling advantage of that magnitude, it’s hard to say why Trump chose to give his most aggressive debate performance yet, mixing it up with abandon in exchanges with Bush and Cruz, among others.
Trump took sizable gambles in this debate, given the audience he’s targeting. He repeatedly criticized former President George W. Bush, including asserting that the 43rd president’s administration had consciously lied about weapons of mass destruction in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Trump also gave credit to Planned Parenthood for its work on women’s health generally, even as he criticized its stance on abortion.
But Trump gave his supporters moments to rally around him as well, with his complaints about the vested interests in the Republican Party and his repeated denunciations of Cruz as a liar.
In his closing remarks, Trump said “politicians are all talk, no action.” That’s a neat summation of the whole rationale for his campaign. That’s also why he is the GOP front-runner. It’s not clear this debate, for all its fury, harmed his chances.
Sen. Ted Cruz (Texas)
Cruz had his moments, but he was not quite the dominant figure he had been at some previous debates. He tangled with Trump repeatedly, and it was Cruz who elicited Trump’s qualified defense of Planned Parenthood. But the real estate tycoon also hammered Cruz at times, referring to him as “a nasty guy,” among other jibes.
Cruz continues to present himself as a candidate who is as fiercely conservative as Trump on many issues, but more credible. At one point, in a clear if implicit jab at Trump’s promises to bring jobs back to America, Cruz said that unemployment is “not going to be solved with magic pixie dust…by declaring into the air, ‘Let there be jobs.’ ”
Cruz currently lies second to Trump in the RealClearPolitics (RCP) polling average in South Carolina. There was nothing in his debate performance Saturday that suggested his standing was about to change much, either for better or for worse.
Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.)
The Florida senator’s disastrous night on a debate stage in New Hampshire last Saturday was widely blamed for his disappointing fifth-place finish in the Granite State primary on Tuesday.
That being so, Rubio will be relieved to have gotten through the two-hour clash in Greenville without making any obvious gaffes. That, in itself, could restore some stability and confidence to his campaign.
That said, his debate had few standout moments, with the possible exception of a defense of George W. Bush from Trump’s attacks.
Like Cruz, therefore, Rubio did not slip up but nor did he shine — even if various TV pundits in the debate’s immediate aftermath suggested otherwise.
Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson
Debate-watchers know what they’re going to get with Carson — the problem is that it stopped working some time ago.
The retired neurosurgeon was his usual mild-mannered, occasionally ponderous self. He joked, as he almost always does, that the moderators were not directing enough questions his way.
But even in South Carolina — which at one point in the past looked like it could be a strong state for him — Carson is polling in last place among surviving major candidates.
The main question that surrounds Carson at this point is how long he will endure before his campaign bows to the inevitable and peters out entirely.