If the 2016 campaign season has been crude and demoralizing, it at least makes for good reality TV. The recent CBS Republican debate in South Carolina provided the candidates with a crucial opportunity to win voters in the South Carolina primary. Syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer described the 9th debate as a “thermonuclear war,” referring to the abundance of personal attacks and the overall contentious tone.
The debate began with a moment of silence for the late Justice Scalia. Marco Rubio praised Scalia as one of the greatest Supreme Court justices in American history, and all candidates argued that Obama should refrain from nominating a replacement until the American people elect a new president.
Soon after, a discussion of foreign policy threw the debate rhetoric into chaos. Trump criticized President George W. Bush’s initiation of the Iraq War and attacked Jeb Bush by arguing that the former president did not keep America safe. “The World Trade Center came down under your brother’s reign,” Trump said. “Remember that.”
Jeb fired back, “While Donald Trump was building a reality TV show, my brother was building a security apparatus to keep us safe.”
Rubio joined Jeb in attacking Trump. “I thank God all the time that it was George W. Bush in the White House on 9/11 and not Al Gore,” Rubio said, to cheers from the audience. “The World Trade Center came down because Bill Clinton didn’t kill Osama bin Laden when he had the chance to kill him.”
When the moderators shifted the conversation towards immigration, the debate soon devolved into meaningless jargon. Jeb advocated for stronger border control, a path to legal status, and a solution to the problem of people who overstay their visas. Jeb argued that Americans “should show a little more respect for the fact that they’re struggling” and added, “they’re not all rapists as you-know-who said.”
Trump then accused him of being the weakest candidate by far on the issue of illegal immigration. He criticized Jeb for saying that illegal immigrants are not ill-intentioned, but “come out of an act of love.”
Jeb said that it was weak for Donald Trump to disparage women, Hispanics, and the disabled, and to assert that Senator John McCain is not a war hero because he was captured. Trump argued that Jeb has no right to criticize his language since he once supposedly threatened to “take his pants off and moon everybody.”
In the previous New Hampshire debate, many criticized Rubio for his robotic performance after he made the same canned statement several times. After a rough debate performance in New Hampshire, he recovered with a strong performance in South Carolina. Rubio appeared more natural, and successfully articulated his vision for America in the 21st century.
On immigration, Ted Cruz accused Rubio of going on Univision and telling everyone in Spanish that he would not rescind President Obama’s executive orders on amnesty.
“First of all,” Rubio responded, “I don’t know how he knows what I said on Univision because he doesn’t speak Spanish.”
A CBS poll conducted after the debate showed that Rubio emerged victorious with 32 percent of respondents indicating that Rubio won. However, Eliana Johnson of National Review argued that “Rubio’s solid performance was overshadowed by Trump’s antics.”
Last week, Rubio received an important endorsement from South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley. After the South Carolina and Nevada primaries, the race will likely narrow down to the top three or four candidates. Ben Carson’s campaign has long expired and he will presumably drop out within the next few days.
After embarrassing losses in both Iowa and New Hampshire, Jeb’s campaign was on life support. The suspension of his campaign after South Carolina surprised no one. Last week’s South Carolina debate indicates that the hostile rhetoric and personal attacks between the top contenders will intensify in the coming weeks.