GREENVILLE — What began as an homage to the late conservative icon Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia broke down into the biggest and most heated verbal brawl of the season as Donald Trump berated Jeb Bush and even struck out at other members of the Bush family during the last TV debate ahead of the South Carolina GOP primary.
While discussing America’s war policies, Trump lashed out at former President George W. Bush’s decision to launch the Iraq War, accusing the former administration of lying by claiming that there were weapons of mass destruction when there were none.
Trump even jabbed at claims the earlier Bush White House kept America secure.
“The World Trade Center came down during the reign of George Bush. He kept us safe?” Trump said, going on to say “I lost hundreds of friends” in the 9/11 terror attack.
Trump even doubled down on his attack on Jeb Bush, the current GOP candidate, criticizing him for initially struggling to disagree publicly with his brother’s decision to go to war in Iraq.
“It took him five days before his people told him what to say, and he ultimately said it was a mistake,” Trump said of Bush.
Bush, who was openly frustrated with Trump’s attacks, said he didn’t mind being singled out but that he was “sick and tired of him going after my family.”
“While Donald Trump was building a reality TV show, my brother was building a security apparatus to keep us safe,” Jeb Bush said. “And I’m proud of what he did.”
It helped that several of the heated exchanges were met with a resounding response in favor of Jeb Bush. The debate, which took place at the Peace Center in downtown Greenville, was held before an evidently pro-Bush family crowd. The Bush family has deep roots in South Carolina — roots that U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio tried tapping into when he also came to the defense of George W. Bush.
“I thank God that it was George W. Bush in the White House on 9/11 and not Al Gore,” Rubio said.
Rubio recovered from his flub from the previous Republican presidential debate, engaging in several disputes seamlessly. While Trump and Jeb Bush attacked each other, Rubio and his colleague Texas Sen. Ted Cruz went at it as well.
Cruz was critical of Rubio’s failed attempts to reform immigration while as a member of the Gang of Eight.
“There are sharp differences on amnesty,” Cruz said. “Marco right now supports citizenship for 12 million people here illegally. Marco has a long record when it comes to amnesty.”
Meanwhile, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and Ohio Gov. John Kasich attempted to reel in the disputes, as the rest of the candidates tore into each other.
Kasich lamented the fighting, saying that if they kept fighting in that way, they were handing over the election to Democrats.
“I think we’re fixing to lose the election if we don’t stop this,” said Kasich, adding that he would continue forth with having a positive campaign.
But Kasich did not escape unscathed. He became a threat, after a strong second finish in the New Hampshire primary and was criticized for having expanded Medicaid in Ohio. Bush likened the Ohio expansion of Medicaid to the expansion of the Affordable Care Act.
Before ending the night, most of the candidates had made a case as to why they were the right candidate who could replace Scalia with a conservative justice. It was a move that Kasich criticized as well.
“I just wish we hadn’t run so fast into politics,” Kasich said. “The country’s so divided right now, and now we’re going to see another partisan fight taking place. I really wish the president would think about not nominating somebody.”
Most of the hopefuls insisted President Obama hold off on naming a successor to Scalia until the next White House occupant takes over, citing him having only a year left in office. They encouraged Senate roadblocks.
“It’s up to (Senate Leader) Mitch McConnell and everybody else to stop it,” Trump said. “It’s called delay, delay, delay.”
Reach Cynthia Roldan at 843-708-5891.