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GOP Candidates Finally Take On Donald Trump

After months of dodging attacks from Trump, the remaining Republican candidates finally took the gloves off to bludgeon him on the debate stage.
February 14, 2016, 4:10pm
Photo via EPA/Erik S. Lesser

The discussion about the death of Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia was the only brief moment of civility in last night's fiery Republican debate.

On stage in South Carolina, Donald Trump found himself at the center of what essentially turned out to be a two-hour televised brawl which unmasked the dynamics of the race that had been simmering under the surface for months. The debate comes just days after his first win in New Hampshire and precedes the South Carolina primary and Nevada caucuses, both of which Trump is expected to win as well. The other candidates, apparently tired of Trump's success in the campaign so far, took turns piling on.

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But first, Scalia. News of the conservative Supreme Court justice's death broke just hours before the last Republican primary debate and the candidates began by memorializing him. Trump called his death "a tremendous blow to conservatism to our country." But then the conversation quickly turned to politics.

"It's up to Mitch McConnell and everyone else to stop it," Trump said, referring to President Obama's earlier statement that he will send a Supreme Court nominee to the Senate. "It's called delay, delay, delay."

Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who is running as the positive candidate in this race, took a different tack. "It's not even two minutes after the death of judge Scalia," he said. "I wish we hadn't run so fast into politics."

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who often notes that he is a constitutional law expert, argued that Obama would be ending an 80-year tradition of not confirming a justice during an election year by trying to appoint a replacement for Scalia. But CBS moderator John Dickerson interrupted, pointing out that Justice Anthony Kennedy was confirmed in the election year of 1988, which clearly threw Cruz off guard as he attempted to side-step the fact check.

"I just want to get the facts straight for the audience," Dickerson said, which the crowd promptly booed.

Justices confirmed in an election year: Kennedy, Rehnquist, Powell, Brennan, Murphy, Cardozo, Clarke, Brandeis, Pitney, Peckham, many others

— Craig Calcaterra (@craigcalcaterra)February 13, 2016

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Whatever decorum remained on the debate stage ended pretty much as soon as the topic at hand moved beyond Scalia.

The first of many ugly spats of the night came from Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Trump. Bush has gone after Trump past debates -- and was supported by an audience booing Trump in their last matchup -- but this time, Bush's attacks quickly turned into a Trump pile-on from the other candidates onstage as well. Bush made it clear he would be on the offensive last night, first by criticizing Trump's knowledge of foreign policy which he said came from cable talk shows.

Trump, never one to shy away from a fight, unleashed on Bush by blaming his brother, George W. Bush for the September 11 attacks and criticizing the Iraq war. "They lied. They said there were weapons of mass destruction and they knew there were none," Trump said. "The World Trade Center came down during your brother's reign, remember that," he yelled at Bush.

Bush deftly fought back by saying that he was tired of Trump insulting his family.

.— Jonathan Allen (@jonallendc)February 14, 2016

For the second debate in a row, Trump made enemies with the audience, who booed him consistently throughout the entire night. After blaming George W. Bush for 9/11, the boos from the crowd drowned out Trump so much that he had to yell into the microphone, "excuse me, excuse me" to be heard.

"As a businessman I get along with everybody," Trump said as the crowd continued to jeer and Bush grinned.

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"I'm being nice," Trump muttered under his breath.

Bush was not the only one to clash with Trump last night. At one point, Trump got into a yelling match with Cruz after the Texas senator questioned Trump's conservative credentials. The exchange was particularly notable given Cruz's earlier refusal to criticize Trump or his campaign in a months-long truce that had been waning, but now clearly is officially over.

"You're worse than Jeb Bush. You are the single biggest liar," an increasingly red-faced Trump snapped at Cruz.

Cruz attempted to make a counter point but kept being interrupted, which he finally got fed up with. "Adults learn not to interrupt each other," he said to Trump.

Things got so bad that the moderator Dickerson had to intervene several times.

"We're in danger of driving this into the dirt," he said.

The willingness from the candidates to finally attack Trump head on was a notable shift in strategy — especially from Bush — considering that for most of the election they had avoided taking on the Donald directly for fear of losing an eye, but instead focused on one another. In past debates, the so-called establishment candidates — Rubio, Bush, Kasich — mostly stuck with fighting each other, even when Trump mercilessly attacked them. With the race to be the anti-Trump-candidate still undecided, the rest of the field finally shifted their focus to the top candidate.

Last night, the other candidates on stage were not afraid of tag-teaming Trump and even standing up for one another when Trump went after someone. At one point, Rubio actually defended Bush after Trump said that he blamed 9/11 on George W. Bush.

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"I thank God it was George W. Bush in the White House on 9/11 and not Al Gore," Rubio said.

Last night's pile-on was made even more stark by the audience, who loudly cheered when all of the other candidates spoke, especially Bush, and booed pretty much everything Trump said.

"I only tell the truth, lobbyists," Trump said to the crowd at one point, which only made them jeer more.

There were still plenty of other fights between the other candidates as well, including a heated, bilingual exchange between Cruz and Rubio over immigration. Cruz criticized Rubio for going on the Spanish-language television channel Univision to discuss his immigration policy supporting a legal pathway for undocumented immigrants.

"I don't know how [Cruz] knows what I said on Univision because he doesn't speak Spanish," Rubio said dismissively.

Cruz responded by launching into Spanish himself, something the candidate rarely does.

Last night was the last time the candidates would meet before the South Carolina primary on February 20.

Follow Olivia Becker on Twitter: @obecker928