It was the great airing of grievances.
With days remaining until the Feb. 20 South Carolina primary, seemingly every tension that’s welled up in the Republican race broke out into the open in Saturday’s debate. Whether it was calling people a liar, a liberal, a bully, or a loser, almost every presidential hopeful on the stage found something that drove them insane about another candidate – and let them know it.
“This is like a horrible Thanksgiving where the family decides finally they’re all going to say what they really think about each other,” former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum tweeted, mid-debate.
Let us go down the list of complaints, candidate by candidate.
Trump: Bush lied, people died
Raise your hand if you thought a year ago that the Republican front-runner in February 2016 would spend a debate tearing into George W. Bush over his terrorism record.
Yet, here we are. Donald Trump, in addition to repeating his longstanding criticisms of the Iraq War, stood by his call in the mid-2000s to impeach Bush over the conflict, which CBS News moderator John Dickerson brought up.
“You call it whatever you want,” Trump said. “I want to tell you: they lied. They said there were weapons of mass destruction, there were none, and they knew there were none.”
This take on Bush 43 isn’t entirely new from Trump (although the accusation that he intentionally deceived America is further than usual), but it comes right as the former president is coming to South Carolina to campaign for his brother. Jeb Bush responded with some fire this time, and both Sen. Marco Rubio and Ohio Gov. John Kasich stepped in to defend the former president from the accusation that he had lied about Iraq War intelligence.
Trump wasn’t done arguing with Jeb Bush over his family history, though.
“The World Trade Center came down during your brother’s reign, remember that,” he said.
Bush: Trump is an ignorant bully
If Jeb Bush’s campaign ends in South Carolina, he’ll end it fighting on principle. And that principle is: Donald Trump’s a jerk.
“I am sick and tired of him going after my family,” Bush said. “My dad is the greatest man alive in my mind and while Donald Trump was building a reality TV show, my brother was building a security apparatus to keep us safe. And I’m proud of what he did.”
Later, he decried Trump as “a guy who insults his way to the nomination.” Even later, he called out Trump for making offensive comments.
“You want to talk about weakness, it’s weak to disparage women, it’s weak to disparage Hispanics, it’s weak to denigrate the disable and it’s really weak to call John McCain a loser,” he said.
Cruz: Trump’s a liberal
Sen. Ted Cruz, who usually takes a gentle tack with Trump, finally unloaded the big guns. And the ammunition was the news of Justice Antonin Scalia’s death, which Cruz argued showed the need for a reliable movement conservative to pack the courts with reliable movement conservatives.
“The next president is going to appoint one, two, three, four Supreme Court justices,” Cruz said. “If Donald Trump is president he will appoint liberals. If Donald Trump is president, your Second Amendment will go away.”
Cruz’s case was that Trump is still only a recent convert to conservatism – at best. He previously identified as pro-choice and more recently had defended federal funding for Planned Parenthood during the campaign, arguing that the GOP would be accused of hurting women if Congress cut the group off.
Needless to say, this didn’t sit well with Trump, who erupted and called Cruz “the single biggest liar” in the campaign. He also shot back that Cruz had supported Bush’s choice to nominate Chief Justice John Roberts (Cruz penned a National Review op-ed praising Roberts during the confirmation process in 2005), whose presence on the court would later rescue the Affordable Care Act in two major cases. Cruz responded that he would have nominated someone else were he president at the time: arch-conservative Judge Michael Luttig.
Rubio: Cruz is a liar who can’t speak Spanish
Once again, Rubio and Cruz got into a major conflict on the debate stage and once again the primary topic was immigration. But this one was unusually nasty, and it all started when Cruz again attacked “the Rubio-Schumer amnesty plan” that passed the Senate in 2013.
Rubio responded by citing Cruz’s long history of dancing around the question of whether to legalize undocumented immigrants, which Cruz only decisively clarified during the presidential campaign.
“He either wasn’t telling the truth then or he isn’t telling the truth now, but to argue he is a purist on immigration is just not true,” Rubio said.
Cruz said that Rubio “went on Univision in Spanish and said he would not rescind President Obama’s illegal executive amnesty on his first day in office,” implying that he was hiding his position for Latino voters when in fact, he’s taken the same position in English.
“I don’t know how he knows what I said on Univision because he doesn’t speak Spanish,” Rubio said.
As Cruz tried to protest in Spanish, Rubio turned things up to 11.
“Look, this is a disturbing pattern now, because for a number of weeks now, Ted Cruz has just been telling lies,” he said.
Carson: The moderators are mean
Dr. Ben Carson doesn’t like arguing with his opponents, but he sure loves whining about the moderators. And tonight was no exception; with him responding to a question by complaining he didn’t get enough questions in earlier debates.
“Thank you for including me in the debate,” he said. “Two questions already. This is great.”
Kasich: Stop fighting, all of you!
Kasich has tried to carve out a niche as the happy warrior in the group. On Saturday, he responded to the frequent skirmishes between his opponents by reminding everyone the Democrats were watching and maybe they should all chill a little bit.
“What I’ve been watching here, this back and forth, and these attacks, some of them are personal,” Kasich said. “I think we’re fixing to lose the election to Hillary Clinton if we don’t stop this.”