Expect the candidates to praise Scalia and his legacy, but also expect moderator John Dickerson to perhaps ask them about their criteria for picking a high court nominee. It took only a couple of hours for Senate leaders to issue statements on whether a successor to Scalia should be confirmed or even come to a vote before the end of President Obama’s term. The divisive politics of DC are about to get even worse.
Just minutes before the debate was to start, Obama said that he intends to nominate a successor, and that “there’s plenty of time for the Senate to fulfill its responsibility to give that person a fair hearing and a timely vote.”
Scalia’s death also could change the atmosphere of the debate — perhaps more subdued — although the stakes are high for the candidates. Donald Trump is seeking to build on his momentum following his victory in New Hampshire, while Ted Cruz will be hoping to capitalize on South Carolina’s large evangelical vote. Marco Rubio is trying to recover from his stumble in the debate a week ago, while Jeb Bush and John Kasich try to gain traction in the state as an establishment alternatives.
Follow updates below:
9:01 pm ET: Moment of silence. Dickerson starts with a moment of silence for Scalia before going to a commercial break.
9:08 pm ET: A successor? Marco Rubio calls Scalia one of the greatest justices in history, saying that the loss of Scalia is “tremendous.” He even cites Scalia’s dissent in the Obergefell case, which legalized same-sex marriage across the country.
On the question of whether a nominee should be confirmed this year, or after the election, the candidates each express a variation on delay. Ted Cruz says that it has been 80 years since a high court nominee has been confirmed in an election year. But Dickerson interjects, to Cruz’s annoyance, that Anthony Kennedy was confirmed in 1988, by a Democratic Senate. “I just want to make sure the audience has the fact,” Dickerson says, to audience boos.
Trump acknowledges that Obama will nominate someone, but that the Senate should “delay, delay, delay.”
Cruz’s annoyance may have to do with the fact that he was a clerk for Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist.
Kasich, too, believes that a confirmation should be stopped, but he also says that it’s too early after Scalia’s death to be launching into a divisive political situation.
9:23 pm ET: ‘Jeb is so wrong.’ The first major confrontation of the debate is between Donald Trump and Jeb Bush over how to fight ISIS. Trump says that “Jeb is so wrong” in suggesting that Bashar al-Assad, backed by Russian Leader Vladimir Putin, should be removed from power and a Sunni led coalition takes on ISIS. “You have to knock em out. You have to knock em off strong. You can’t fight two wars at one time,” Trump says, before attacking a Middle East policy that started in the Bush era where “we have spent $5 trillion all over” the region.
Bush responds by calling Trump “a man who insults his way to the nomination.”
Their confrontation escalates a few minutes later, when Trump becomes even more withering in his criticism of the decision to invade Iraq in 2003. “There were no weapons of mass destruction and they knew there were none,” Trump says.
Bush responds by saying that he is “sick and tired of [Trump] going after my family.”
“While Donald Trump was building a reality TV show, my brother was building a security apparatus to keep us safe,” Bush says.
Trump even challenges the idea that George W. Bush “kept us safe.” He cites 9/11. “That is not safe,” he says.
Rubio interjects that President Bill Clinton didn’t take out Osama bin Laden when he could, but Trump does not go for it. “George Bush did not listen to the advice of his CIA,” he says, a reference to warnings that the agency gave to the White House in the summer of 2001.
Trump was agitated not just by Bush’s challenge of his foreign policy depth, but of the boos that he was getting in the audience. But he was sharper than he has ever been in blaming George W. Bush for the chaos in the Middle East and perhaps for 9/11 too. That is something that would have been unthinkable among any of the major GOP contenders in 2008 and 2012.
Bush said that Trump would be disinvited from a campaign event he has planned for Monday with his brother George.
9:48 pm ET: ‘Magic pixie dust’ Ted Cruz attacks Trump’s tax proposals by saying that jobs won’t be created by “magic pixie dust.” Cruz is proposing a business flat tax, and his dig is meant to dismiss Trump’s frequent pledge that he would be the greatest “jobs president.” The Tax Foundation, a conservative policy group, says that Trump’s tax plan would reduce tax revenues by over $10 trillion over the next decade.
9:54 pm ET: Bush vs. Kasich. Bush takes on Kasich over over his decision to expand Medicaid under Obamacare. “Obamacare expansion is creating more debt,” he says. Kasich notes that Ronald Reagan also expanded Medicaid, and that his expansion does not mean that he supports the Affordable Care Act. The exchange is indicative of the battle that the two are having in trying to become to alternative to Trump or Cruz, especially in ultra-conservative South Carolina, a much different political landscape than New Hampshire.
10:02 pm ET: Twitter data. Trump has gotten several moments of boos from the audience, but he is leading Twitter conversation. According to Twitter, he is garnering 42% of the conversation, followed by 23% for Bush and 12% for Rubio.
10:06 pm ET: ‘The donor class’ Both Cruz and Trump have gotten boos from an audience that seems bent on making their cheers and jeers known. The two candidates have dismissed the boos, with Trump suggesting that the audience is filled with special-interest Bush backers, and Cruz calls the Rubio supporters the “donor class.”
10:10 pm ET: Cruz vs. Rubio. Cruz and Rubio engage (again) over immigration. Cruz has slammed Rubio for supporting a path to citizenship in 2013 legislation that was eventually abandoned, and cites an interview that Rubio gave on Univision. In one of the stranger moments, Rubio says, “How does (Cruz) know what I said on Univision? He doesn’t speak Spanish.” Then Cruz starts speaking Spanish.
10:15 ET: More Trump vs. Jeb. As if they needed more confrontation, Trump declares that Bush is “the weakest person on this stage by far on illegal immigration.” Bush then slams Trump for statements he has made about women, Hispanics and John McCain. Apparently since the talk is about boorishness, Trump brings up a joke that Bush made about mooning the crowd. Now this debate is getting really weird. Kasich tries to act as the voice of reason by saying that all of the arguing will only help the Democrats win in the fall.
10:33 pm ‘We are in danger of driving this in to the dirt.’ Dickerson is trying to get some control over the bitter confrontation between Trump and Cruz, and then Trump and Bush. Trump is coming across as angry and petulant, but he also has a knack for not letting rivals get a critical statement out without talking over them. Cruz says that Trump supports “partial birth abortions,” to which Trump calls him “the single biggest liar. You are probably worse than Jeb Bush.” But Cruz is unswayed, and continues to characterize Trump as more liberal than he says he is.
10:42 pm ET Proud and profane. Trump seems to admit that he’s used some bad language, but pledges to watch it. “Not using profanity is very easy,” he says. Does it matter? On Twitter, his performance tonight is being described as a “meltdown.” Four other candidates are on stage, but this debate has really been a battle between Trump and Bush. Bush accuses Trump of going bankrupt four times and using eminent domain to remove and old woman so he can build a limousine parking lot. Trump accuses Bush of basically ruining Florida when he was governor.
10:53 pm ET The End. An evening that started with reflections on the death of Scalia ended with the tone of “The Maury Povich Show.” Twitter commentators are right: Trump was aggressive and harsh, too much on defense, and showed too much thin skin — which is to say, don’t be surprised if he rises in the polls. Up against Cruz, he is trying to corner the market on anger at the GOP establishment. Kasich and Carson were the only two candidates to come away unscathed from the brawl. Bush talked about ending dysfunction in Washington. Viewers were apt to wonder about the discord on stage on Saturday.