Greenville, S.C. — If Donald Trump’s presidential bid fails, many will point to Saturday night’s debate in Greenville, S.C., as the moment when he first strayed beyond what Republican primary voters were willing to stomach.
Trump rained insults on all of his challengers, but it was the diatribe he directed at former president George W. Bush, whom he faulted for the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, that was the source of his undoing on Saturday. Though South Carolina Republicans have by and large turned against the Iraq War, Bush remains one of the most popular politicians in the state.
Trump is sitting on a big lead here in the Palmetto State, but his attack on a former Republican president introduced a new dynamic: The rest of the field spent the evening ganging up to attack the front-runner.
Responding to a question from CBS moderator John Dickerson, who noted that Trump had once called for Bush’s impeachment over his decision to send American troops into Iraq, Trump said, “They lied. They said there were weapons of mass destruction and there were none, and they knew there were none.” Roused to defend his brother, Jeb Bush finally landed some real blows against Trump, who has mocked him for months on the campaign trail. And he delivered them with the sort of energy and finesse that has been lacking from so many of his debate performances: “While Donald Trump was busy building a reality-TV show,” Bush said, “my brother was busy building a security apparatus to keep us safe.”
“My dad is the greatest man alive, in my mind,” he added, “and my mom is the strongest woman I know.”
“She should be running,” Trump shot back.
Bush was clearly energized by his fourth-place finish, ahead of protégé-turned-rival Marco Rubio, in New Hampshire, and impelled by the urgency of the moment. The two Floridians are running neck and neck behind Trump and Cruz in recent polls here, and a victory for one over the other in next Saturday’s primary will have significant repercussions. The loser could find himself falling behind in the struggle to woo and keep donors, a months-long proxy battle for political life that is threatening to come to a head in South Carolina.
In that sense, Saturday’s debate marked a rare moment of teamwork between the two, as they joined forces against Trump. After Bush assailed the front-runner, Rubio jumped in to note that he is grateful George W. Bush was president when the Twin Towers went down. They succeeded in doing what Trump has done to so many of his challengers: They got under his skin. For the remaining 90 minutes of the event, Trump was on edge, and his remarks ranged from irritable to bizarre.
Bush and Rubio succeeded in doing what Trump has done to so many of his challengers: They got under his skin.
“Spend a little bit more money on the commercials,” the real-estate mogul blurted in Bush’s direction numerous times. He was almost jumpy when Ted Cruz accused him of supporting liberal politicians and interests, including Planned Parenthood. “You are the single biggest liar, you probably are worse than Jeb Bush,” he snapped. “Now I know why he doesn’t have a single friend in the Senate.”
Then, seemingly unprompted, he interrupted Bush as the Florida governor was responding to a question about illegal immigration to interject, “Two days ago, he said he would take his pants off and moon everybody, but that’s fine, nobody reports that.” (Trump was referring to an interview Bush gave the Boston Globe last week when he said, regarding the lack of news coverage of his campaign, “I could drop my pants. Moon the whole crowd. Everybody would be aghast, except the press guys would never notice.”)
South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham, who has endorsed Bush, said after the event that Trump “went to a level of nut job we haven’t seen before.” In an appearance on CBS News, Graham proclaimed himself “the happiest man in South Carolina” after watching what he considered Trump’s self-destruction.
If Trump’s clash with Bush proved to be the pivotal moment of the evening, all eyes had been on Rubio as the night began. The Florida senator badly needed a comeback performance after falling to a disappointing fifth in New Hampshire following his disastrous debate performance in Manchester, which he promised his supporters he would not repeat. And he delivered a solid showing in Greenville: He dumped the talking points for which Chris Christie had pilloried him and spoke competently of the national-security challenges the next president will face.
After standing meekly on the debate stage last week while Christie pummeled him, Rubio also demonstrated in a testy exchange with rival Ted Cruz that he can throw a punch.
When Cruz blasted Rubio for supporting amnesty, charging that his rival “went on Univision in Spanish and said that he would not rescind President Obama’s illegal executive order,” Rubio was ready with a rejoinder. “First of all, I don’t know how he knows what I said on Univision because he doesn’t speak Spanish,” he shot back, accusing Cruz of “lying” on a host of issues. (Cruz, whose father is a Cuban exile, is not a native Spanish speaker, but responded by awkwardly challenging Rubio — in accented Spanish — to continue the debate “en Español.”)
The Rubio campaign’s view is that debates can’t help presidential candidates, but they can do them damage. That was likely true tonight, where Rubio’s solid performance was overshadowed by Trump’s antics, and where Trump’s antics were likely enough to make voters forget about Rubio’s big fumble. But all will have to do more — Trump to hurt himself, Rubio and Bush to help themselves — between now and next Saturday to appreciably change the dynamics of the race.
— Eliana Johnson is National Review’s Washington editor.