Reported by Matt Long and Ashley Byrd
Working hard to sway South Carolinians who are still not settled on a choice, the four-highest polling Republican presidential candidates repeatedly attacked each other’s record during a debate in Greenville Saturday night, often talking over each other and the moderators.
Saturday night’s CBS News debate at the Peace Center in downtown Greenville was perhaps the most combative yet in what has already been a vicious primary cycle. The candidates sparred just one week before South Carolina Republicans make their choice.
Moderator John Dickerson often had trouble keeping on-topic as perceived frontrunner Donald Trump clashed several times with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Texas US Sen. Ted Cruz, while Cruz and Marco Rubio hit each others’ positions on immigration (even questioning the others’ knowledge of Spanish at one point)..
The death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia led the debate to start off with questions on whether Republicans should consider whoever President Obama nominates to replace him. Rubio, Ohio Governor John Kasich, and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson said the President should wait until the next president comes into office 11 months from now. Bush and Trump indicated Obama has the right to nominate a judge, but Senate Republicans would have sway over the approval process.
“It’s called delay, delay, delay,” Trump said.
Trump criticized former President George W. Bush for “mistakes” on weapons of mass destruction that led to the Iraq War. However, he dodged a question about his previous comments that Democrats should have pursued impeachment proceedings against Bush.
That gave Jeb Bush an opening to defend his older brother. “While Donald Trump was building a reality television show, my brother was building a security apparatus to keep us safe,” the governor said.
“How did he keep us safe when the World Trade Center came down?” Trump retorted. “I lost hundreds of friends.” However the Peace Center audience, which had few vocal Trump supporters among it, booed the real estate magnate on two different occasions that he argued the elder Bush had failed to keep the country safe on 9/11.
Rubio entered the exchange to argue that “the World Trade Center came down because Bill Clinton didn’t kill Osama Bin Laden.”
LISTEN TO BUSH AND TRUMP EXCHANGE:
More verbal fireworks exploded on immigration as Cruz and Rubio knocked each other’s records on a 2013 reform bill that Rubio co-sponsored. Cruz, echoing his campaign ads, tried to tie Rubio with Democratic New York US Sen. Chuck Schumer.
“There are sharp differences on amnesty,” Cruz argued. “Marco right now supports citizenship for 12 million people here illegally.”However Rubio accused Cruz of lying and said the Texas senator had himself authored an amendment that would have legalized millions in the country illegally and voiced support for the bill at the time.
At one point, the two sons of Cuban immigrants even challenged each other on who could speak Spanish. “Marco went on Univision in Spanish and said he would not rescind Obama’s illegal executive action on amnesty,” Cruz said.
“I don’t know how he knows what I said on Univision,” Rubio retorted. “He doesn’t speak Spanish.” Cruz responded by repeating a Spanish phrase.
LISTEN TO CRUZ VS. RUBIO:
The exchange sparked frustration from Kasich, who paraphrased former candidate Chris Christie’s previous debate complaints of “listening to two senators talk about arcane amendments to bills that didn’t pass.”
Kasich sought to stay out of the verbal knife fight occurring on-stage. “I think we’re fixing to lose the election to Hillary Clinton if we don’t stop this,” he said at one point.
But even Kasich was targeted at one point — by Bush for Kasich’s support for the expansion of Medicaid in Ohio. “We should be fighting Obamacare, repealing Obamacare, replacing it with something different,” Bush said.
Kasich defended the expansion, arguing it saved the Buckeye State money on ER visits and drug treatment and portrayed it as a humane solution for those who are not enrolled in Medicaid and cannot afford healthcare.
While Carson was not the subject of any shots from rival candidates, it was likely more an indication of his low poll numbers. Even the moderators paid relatively little attention to the doctor, whose five percent support was last in an Augusta Chronicle poll of likely South Carolina GOP voters released Friday. As a result, he often used his time to answer previous questions asked of other candidates.
“If all the people who say, ‘I love Ben Carson and his policies, but he can’t win’ vote for me, not only can we win, but we can turn this thing around,” he said in his closing remarks.