GOP race showing its ugly side in S.C.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump (right), accompanied by S.C. Lt. Gov. Henry McMaster, speaks with members of the media on Monday in Hanahan.

Disgusting Liar! Unhinged! Weakling!

With just days until Saturday’s vote, a new gold standard for angry candidate venom is being set in this year’s South Carolina Republican primary.

Rather than being a race about policy and a vision for the nation’s future, this normally well-mannered Southern state — which has a history of sinking into ugly politics — is seeing a performance from the rudest of house guests.

And it’s getting personal.

Donald Trump took aim again Monday at former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and his brother, former President George W. Bush, criticizing the ex-president’s record before and after 9/11. Trump’s criticism came just hours before both Bushes spoke at a large rally in North Charleston.

Neither Bush addressed Trump’s criticisms directly during their rally at the North Charleston Coliseum, opting instead to appear above the fray as they made a pitch to undecided voters in the run up to Saturday’s vote here. College of Charleston political scientist Gibbs Knotts said Bush might gain from the spotlight, hot as it is, as he seeks to rally the party’s establishment vote. While Trump has tapped into the anti-Washington, antiestablishment sentiment, he still is seeking to be the nominee of a major political party.

“There are a lot of Republicans out there, particularly in South Carolina, so Trump’s strategy could backfire,” Knotts said. “I didn’t think anyone in American politics was truly bulletproof but Trump is defying the conventional wisdom. I still believe that the potential exists for a Trump backlash, however.”

During a stop in Hanahan, Trump elaborated on his remarks during Saturday’s debate about President George W. Bush’s role in 9/11 and sharing his thoughts about his larger presidential legacy.

“There was tremendous information, and the CIA and various other agencies were not talking and they were not getting along, and there were a lot of personality conflicts and they all hated each other and we ended up with the (attack on the) World Trade Center,” Trump said.

Trump stopped short of saying Bush was responsible for the attacks but criticized his later moves, particularly the decision to invade Iraq.

“You had him on the aircraft carrier saying all sorts of wonderful things. The war was essentially over. Guess what? Not over,” Trump said, later adding, “Now Iraq is the Harvard for terrorists. You want to become a terrorist? Go to Iraq.”

Jeb Bush, who once was considered the front-runner but who has struggled in the primary season’s first two contests, must convince the so-called party establishment to look to him to right an out-of-whack primary process.

Trump, meanwhile, seemingly can say no wrong and may even be able expand his base by attacking Jeb Bush and the Bush legacy — even in South Carolina, where the family has enjoyed strong support in past years.

Consider this exchange from Saturday’s debate in Greenville:

“The weakest person on this stage by far on illegal immigration is Jeb Bush,” Trump said. “He is so weak on illegal immigration it’s laughable and everybody knows it.”

Moments later Bush came back with, “If you want to talk about weakness, you want to talk about weakness? It’s weak to disparage women.”

Political observers say that in addition to being a case of intense dislike between Trump and the Bush family, the war of words is more about stirring the passions of GOP voters.

And Trump directed more passion Monday toward another rival, Sen. Ted Cruz, who he called “a disgusting liar,” “a very unstable guy” and “a basket case.”

“I have never met a person who lies more than Ted Cruz,” Trump said, adding that he would sue Cruz if the Texas senator doesn’t apologize for his remarks that Trump is pro-choice and favors Obamacare.

Cruz has dismissed Trump’s attempt to question Cruz’s citizenship before and responded Monday on Twitter: “You cannot simply scream ‘liar’ when someone points out your actual positions.”

While campaigning in Aiken, Cruz took aim at the judicial record of Trump’s sister — Maryanne Trump Barry, a senior judge on the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia — saying she is a “radical pro-abortion extremist” unfit for the U.S. Supreme Court.

Trump noted that his sister was appointed by President Ronald Reagan. “My sister has nothing to do with me,” he said. “She’s a federal judge at a high, high level. ... I don’t even know what her views are, and I don’t think she would tell me.”

With less than a week to go before Saturday’s Republican primary, many have taken note of the personal nature of the latest attacks. Citadel political scientist Scott Buchanan called the race “pretty nasty.”

As for Trump’s reference to 9/11, he said, “I think this is a case of Trump being Trump.” Attacking Bush is yet another way for Trump to tackle the party’s establishment, which Trump said is in bed with special interests.

“I think what’s going on is that Trump is playing to his bona fides of being an outsider and let’s face it, you can’t be much more of part of the party establishment than Bush,” Buchanan said.

Charleston County GOP Chairman Larry Kobrovsky called the tenor of the Republican race “unfortunate” but said it’s no worse than the hard-hitting 2000 GOP primary fight here between George W. Bush and Sen. John McCain.

“What you’re seeing is a reflection of the high stakes and the passion,” Kobrovsky said, adding that he recently saw four negative TV ads in a row blasting various Republican candidates.

“It was almost like a ‘Saturday Night Live’ satire, but no, it was legitimate. They were real commercials,” he said. “Everybody gets very heated and makes accusations. Everybody knows afterward that you’re going to make up and support each other, so why not do that up front?”

On Trump’s mouth specifically and campaign invective in general, Buchanan said there’s always the danger of a candidate going too far.

“Time will tell whether Trump has gone too far,” Buchanan said.