Former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida blasted Donald J. Trump for insulting the Bush family and ridiculed the idea that Mr. Trump could be commander in chief during a contentious and sometimes nasty Republican presidential debate in Greenville, S.C., on Saturday, a week before a crucial primary in the state.
With Mr. Trump leading in the polls in South Carolina and elsewhere after his victory in the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday, he was a ripe target for his Republican rivals, especially Mr. Bush and Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, who are under intense pressure to halt his political momentum. But the vitriol was so intense that it seemed to surprise even Mr. Trump, a combative figure who had not been so roundly pummeled at a debate before.
After a somber opening to the debate that focused on the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, Mr. Bush aggressively took on Mr. Trump — an imperative for the former governor, given his poor showings in New Hampshire and the Iowa caucuses this month. Having helped raise more than $155 million, and with his family’s political reputation on the line, Mr. Bush had the look and feel of a man taking his last, best shot to rescue his candidacy and destroy Mr. Trump’s.
Mr. Bush bore into Mr. Trump’s knowledge and readiness to confront national security threats, noting that Mr. Trump had made positive remarks about Russia’s role in fighting the Islamic State in Syria.
Interactive Feature | Fact Checks of the Ninth G.O.P. Debate The New York Times will be checking assertions made throughout the 2016 presidential campaign.
“It is absolutely ludicrous to suggest that Russia could be a positive partner in this,” Mr. Bush said.
“Jeb is so wrong; Jeb is absolutely …” Mr. Trump said, before being cut off by boos from the audience. “You’ve got to fight ISIS first,” he added. “You have to knock them off strong.”
Mr. Trump drew more boos by attacking a South Carolina Republican, Senator Lindsey Graham, who is a Bush ally. Mr. Trump dismissed the catcalls from the audience by saying they were from Bush supporters, donors and Washington insiders. “I tell the truth, lobbyists,” Mr. Trump said.
Moments later, Mr. Trump stood by his past remarks that he would have supported the impeachment of President George W. Bush over the war in Iraq, saying that his administration misled the country about weapons of mass destruction. “They lied, they said there were weapons of mass destruction, and there were none,” Mr. Trump said.
His remarks drew a slashing attack from Jeb Bush, who is well aware that many South Carolina Republicans hold high opinions of President Bush as well as of their parents. “I’m sick and tired of him going after my family,” Mr. Bush said. “My dad is the greatest man alive, in my mind,” he added. “My mom is the strongest woman I know.”
“She should be running,” Mr. Trump said tartly.
Attacking the honor and record of the Bush family amounted to one of the biggest risks that Mr. Trump had taken during the presidential race, given that Mr. Bush and his “super PAC” are spending heavily to win the South Carolina primary and that Bush advisers believe Mr. Trump is vulnerable here.
Mr. Trump’s florid reputation, past support for abortion rights and harsh language — including a vulgarity he used last week about Mr. Cruz — could alienate social conservatives and establishment Republicans in the state, according to Bush advisers. While Mr. Bush has assailed Mr. Trump in the past and described him as all but unqualified for the presidency, the Saturday debate was his most forceful performance of the race.
The debate was also critical for Senator Marco Rubio of Florida after his disastrous turn in a face-off last weekend in New Hampshire, where Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey savaged him as scripted and callow after Mr. Rubio kept repeating the same stock attack on President Obama.
Mr. Rubio’s political momentum slowed after that, and he finished fifth in the primary there; in his concession speech, he promised supporters that he would not make the same mistakes in the debate on Saturday night. If he did not embarrass himself, he did not appreciably improve. As before, he spoke very quickly, in long sentences, rattling off national security challenges in Asia, the Middle East and Russia without pausing, a furious rush akin to spitting out words.
Mr. Rubio also briefly pounced on Mr. Trump during the exchange over President George W. Bush, not only on the subject of Iraq but also on the Sept. 11 attacks. Mr. Trump disputed Mr. Rubio’s assertion that President Bush had shown leadership before the attacks.
“The World Trade Center came down during the reign of George Bush,” Mr. Trump said. “That is not safe, Marco.”
“The World Trade Center came down because Bill Clinton did not kill Osama Bin Laden when he had the chance to kill him,” Mr. Rubio said.
The death of Justice Scalia briefly injected a new seriousness into a Republican nomination fight that has been rambunctious and unpredictable ever since Mr. Trump upended American politics last summer by building a formidable lead in national opinion polls despite a series of harsh comments about Mexicans, women, Senator John McCain and others.
The six candidates were generally in agreement that the Republican-led Senate should try to block any nomination by Mr. Obama to replace Justice Scalia, although some of them acknowledged that if they were president, they would act on their constitutional authority to try to fill the vacancy.
“If I were president now, I would certainly want to try to nominate a justice,” Mr. Trump said. “I think he’s going to do it whether I’m O.K. with it or not. I think it’s up to Mitch McConnell and everybody else to stop it. It’s called delay, delay, delay.”
Gov. John Kasich of Ohio struck a somber note, saying he was disappointed that Justice Scalia’s death had turned into a partisan fight so quickly. He argued that Mr. Obama should pick a candidate who would receive “unanimous approval” from both parties, or else forgo naming a candidate. “I wish we hadn’t run so fast into politics,” Mr. Kasich said.
While all of the candidates seemed more animated during the forum, the dynamic seemed to revert to the early days of the campaign, when Mr. Trump’s presence, personality and blunt insults dominated the action.
Mr. Kasich, who has sought to portray himself as the most reasonable and centrist of the candidates, told the group at one point: “I think we’re fixing to lose the election to Hillary Clinton if we don’t stop this.”
The candidates also clashed sharply over immigration, which has emerged as the major policy flash point in the South Carolina Republican primary. Mr. Rubio, who sees Mr. Cruz and to a lesser extent Jeb Bush as his chief threats in South Carolina, attacked Mr. Cruz with the same talking points he had used all week, insisting that the Texas senator had held lenient positions on illegal immigration.
“I would note not only that Marco has a long record when it comes to amnesty,” Mr. Cruz said. “In the state of Florida, as speaker of the house, he supported in-state tuition for illegal immigrants. In addition to that, Marco went on Univision in Spanish and said he would not rescind Mr. Obama’s illegal exclusive amnesty on his first day in office.”
Mr. Rubio shot back, “I don’t know how he knows what I said on Univision, because he doesn’t speak Spanish,” which prompted a brief reply in Spanish from Mr. Cruz.
While Mr. Trump was repeatedly dismissive of Mr. Bush’s political skills, portraying him as a loser whose supporters had spent more than $20 million on attack ads to little gain, he was even more scathing toward Mr. Cruz, who is regarded by the Trump campaign as its ultimate opponent. Mr. Trump appeared on the verge of losing his cool as Mr. Cruz invoked the death of Justice Scalia to warn that Mr. Trump would appoint “liberals” to the Supreme Court and brought up Mr. Trump’s past support for abortion rights.
“You are the single biggest liar,” Mr. Trump said, glaring at Mr. Cruz. “This guy will say anything. Nasty guy. Now I know why he doesn’t have one endorsement from any of his colleagues” in the Senate.
Yet when Mr. Trump went on to attack Mr. Cruz over his campaign’s attempt to undermine
Ben Carson in Iowa, Mr. Cruz saw an opening and seized it.
“I will say it is fairly remarkable to see Donald defending Ben,” Mr. Cruz said, “after he called him pathological and compared him to a child molester, both of which were offensive and wrong.”
“I just quoted his book,” Mr. Trump said of some his swipes at Mr. Carson last fall.
The debate’s moderator, John Dickerson of CBS, even confronted Mr. Trump with his history of profanity, asking him to explain it, given that many voters found his language offensive.
“On occasion, in order to sort of really highlight something, I’ll use a profanity,” Mr. Trump said. “One of the profanities that I got credited with using that I didn’t use was a very bad word two weeks ago that I never used,” he added. “And everybody said ‘Oh, he didn’t say anything wrong.’ But you bleeped it. So everyone thinks I said the word — I didn’t say anything. I never said the word.”
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