GREENVILLE, S.C. — Republican White House hopefuls insisted that U.S. President Barack Obama step aside and allow his successor to nominate the next Supreme Court justice, in a raucous Saturday night debate that also featured harshly personal jousting over immigration and foreign policy.
The debate was shaken by the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia hours before the candidates took the stage. Among the contenders, only Jeb Bush said Obama had “every right” to nominate a justice during his final year in office. The former Florida governor said there should be “consensus orientation on that nomination” — but added that he didn’t expect Obama would pick a candidate in that vein.
The five other candidates on the stage urged the Republican-led Senate to block any attempts by the president to get his third nominee on the court.
“It’s up to Mitch McConnell and everybody else to stop it,” Donald Trump said. “It’s called delay, delay, delay.”
A debate that began with a somber moment of silence for Scalia devolved quickly into fighting between Trump and Bush. The exchanges highlighted the bad blood between the real estate mogul who leads the Republican field and the former Florida governor who was once expected to sail to the nomination.
In a particularly heated confrontation, Trump accused Bush’s brother — former President George W. Bush — of having lied to the public about the Iraq war.
“Obviously the war in Iraq was a big fat mistake,” Trump said.
Bush, who has been among the most aggressive Republican candidates in taking on Trump, said that while he doesn’t mind the real estate mogul criticizing him — “It’s blood sport for him” — he is “sick and tired of him going after my family.”
Trump was jeered lustily by the audience in Greenville, South Carolina, a state where the Bush family is popular with Republicans. George W. Bush plans to campaign with his brother in Charleston Monday, making his first public foray into the 2016 race.
Sens. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio also revived their fight over immigration, with the Texas senator haranguing his Florida counterpart for sponsoring failed legislation that would have created a pathway to citizenship for many of those in the United States illegally. Cruz also accused Rubio of taking a more moderate approach when speaking to Spanish-language media in an attempt to appeal to Hispanics.
“I don’t know how he knows what I said on Univision — he doesn’t speak Spanish,” Rubio shot back.
Just six contenders took the debate stage, far from the long line of candidates who participated in earlier GOP events. Yet the Republican race remains deeply uncertain, with party elites still hoping that one of the more mainstream candidates will rise up to challenge Trump and Cruz. Many GOP leaders believe both would be unelectable in November.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich sought to inject the election’s high stakes into the discussion in the midst of the fiery exchanges between his competitors.
“I think we’re fixing to lose the election to Hillary Clinton if we don’t stop this,” Kasich said.
Scalia’s sudden death could serve as a reminder of the consequences of elections.
Cruz cast the moment in stark terms, saying allowing another Obama nominee to be approved would amount to Republicans giving up control of the Supreme Court for a generation. An uncompromising conservative, Cruz urged voters to consider who among the GOP candidates would nominate the most ideologically pure justices.
“One of the most important judgments for the men and women of South Carolina to make is who on this stage has the background, the principle, the character, the judgment and the strength of resolve to nominate and confirm principled constitutionalists to the court,” Cruz said.
Saturday’s debate came one week before South Carolina’s primary. Cruz and Trump emerged from the first two voting contests with a victory apiece and appear positioned to compete for a win in the first Southern primary.
Kasich defended himself against attacks on his conservative credentials, particularly his decision to expand Medicaid in Ohio despite resistance from his GOP-led Legislature. Kasich argued that his decision was a good deal for the state in the long run.
“We want everyone to rise and we will make them personally responsible for the help they get,” said Kasich, whose fledgling campaign gained new life after a second-place finish in the New Hampshire primary.
Bush played the aggressor again, saying that Kasich’s actions amounted to “expanding Obamacare” — a deeply unpopular concept among Republicans.