Republican debate serves up fresh attacks, but impact is unclear

Republican debate serves up fresh attacks, but impact is unclear

There was no shortage of fireworks as Republican Presidential candidates came together in Greenville, South Carolina Saturday night for the GOP’s ninth primary debate. Though ‘only’ six candidates remain, there was still more than enough drama on tap as the top tier candidates – Trump, Cruz, and Rubio – continued their war of words, and Donald Trump recommenced his pointed attacks on Jeb Bush.

Sadly, just hours before the debate, the nation learned of the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. Necessarily political, the death of the Supreme Court giant and implications of replacing him on the bench framed the opening minutes of the debate as the Republican candidates unanimously opposed President Obama’s plans to nominate a replacement before the American people have the chance to select a new Commander in Chief.

The somber mood faded quickly, however, as the unity turned to hostility between the candidates in several contentious exchanges ranging from immigration to taxes to the Iraq War.

Despite the lively back-and-forth, major swings in support are not likely to result from Saturday’s GOP debate. Trump, Cruz and Rubio will maintain their significant lead in the polls and pull away from the bottom three candidates for good. The order in which the top tier finish is anyone’s guess in this unorthodox campaign season.

Tangible results will come after primary voting closes, at which point one or more of the bottom tier candidates may bow out as their path to the nomination proves unnavigable.

Most Improved

Marco Rubio had perhaps the most pressure coming into South Carolina, following his poor showing in New Hampshire recently. In the Granite State, the Florida Senator stumbled mightily on the debate stage and proceeded to underperform in the ensuing primary contest.

Riding a wave of momentum into the New Hampshire primary contest as the only viable establishment candidate left in the race, Rubio’s figurative wipe out there raised serious questions about his path to the nomination. He requires a good finish in the South Carolina primary to maintain his spot in the top tier.

Correlation is not necessarily causation, but judging by Saturday’s debate alone, Marco Rubio should reclaim his positive momentum going into next weekend’s vote. He benefitted from the absence of his main foils from the last debates: Chris Christie, who recently suspended his campaign after arguably spearheading the effective attacks on Rubio in New Hampshire, and Jeb Bush, who has seemingly prioritized counterattacking frontrunner Donald Trump instead of his once protégé.

With less direct opposition, Senator Rubio was able to deliver a polished performance that stands in stark contrast to his New Hampshire outing. Aside from one familiar exchange with Senator Ted Cruz on the issue of who supported what during the legislative debate on the Gang of Eight immigration reform Senate bill, Marco Rubio emerged largely unscathed.

Substantively, Rubio was able to highlight his tax policies and foreign policy chops. He emphasized his tax plan’s expansion of child tax credits as a pro-family policy that keeps more earnings in the pockets of the middle class, and exclaimed that America must reverse the current administration’s weak and destructive foreign policy of the last seven years. It may have worked, as 32% of debate watchers saw Rubio as the clear winner.

The Show

Fresh off a win in New Hampshire, Donald Trump wasted no time attacking his closest rival, Senator Ted Cruz, and throwing haymakers at his familiar punching bag, Former Governor Jeb Bush.

Ted Cruz seemed to strike the frontrunner where he is most vulnerable in the Republican primary, drawing attention to Trump’s liberal past and its litany of decidedly non-conservative positions. His past views, Cruz said, attest that Trump would nominate liberal justices to the Supreme Court. The eccentric billionaire hit back emphatically, calling the Texas Senator the “single biggest liar.”

While framing Trump as too liberal to entrust the nomination, Cruz doubled down on his own conservative credentials. He touted his pro-growth economic vision and his experience defending the Constitution before the US Supreme Court.

Jeb Bush may have sensed an opportunity to bully the bully, as he berated Trump for his recent attacks on the Bush family, including matriarch Barbara Bush. Jeb Bush was arguably the most confident and on message in dealing with Donald Trump, as he has been the entire campaign. He cogently defended his brother, former President George W. Bush, in his foreign policy decisions and remained steady in the face of Trump’s bluster.

True to form, Donald Trump’s reaction to Jeb Bush’s newfound combativeness seemed to be the epitome of political incorrectness, especially within a Republican primary. Trump blasted former President George W. Bush, essentially charging that he knowingly lied about Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq in order to justify the 2003 invasion and overthrow of Saddam Hussein, and blaming the current chaos in the Middle East on those very policies. He even disputed the claim that George W. Bush ‘kept us safe’, as Jeb Bush exclaimed, by pointing out that the World Trade Center came down during his presidency.

It cannot be overstated how brazen this line of attack from Trump was, in a state that boasts strong support for the former President and Bush family in general. But more than mere personal attacks on a popular former President, Donald Trump’s criticism of the Bush foreign policy rests upon the very same arguments that have been and continue to be made by the political left in this country.

Though he has defined this campaign by turning brazen political incorrectness into booming poll numbers, adopting the opponents’ rhetoric to criticize popular Republicans may prove damaging in the ‘First in the South’ primary contest next weekend.

Next Stop

The next debate takes place on February 25 in Houston, Texas where Senator Ted Cruz may enjoy a nominal home field advantage. From there the candidates head into ‘Super Tuesday’ on March 1st, when 14 states hold votes to select party nominees for President.

Categories: North America, Politics

About Author

Jeffrey Moore

Jeff Moore is a Project Manager and Research Specialist with the North Carolina Department of Commerce, with a focus on legislative, economic and workforce issues. Previously, he served in the Office of Governor Pat McCrory as an economic policy aide and researcher. After earning a BA in Political Science from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2007, Jeff worked as a proprietary equity trader, successfully navigating capital markets during the 2008 financial crisis and the ensuing business and political ramifications that followed.