GREENVILLE, S.C. (AP) — Donald Trump, shouting, accusing and interrupting, dominated Saturday’s Republican presidential debate as the ringmaster of a free-for-all that careened between battles over immigration, the Iraq war and who was the true conservative.
In the final debate before South Carolina voters go to the polls next Saturday, Trump fought, often bitterly, with former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida and with Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, both of whom hit back with gusto.
Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida joined the fray, accusing Cruz of lying. But it was Trump, with his asides and insults, that often dominated the dialogue.
Trump, the leader in South Carolina polls, separated himself from the field with his relentless outrage and outspokenness.
He dominated the first part of the debate with his tirades at George W. Bush over the Iraq war, and for being in office during the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack.
Bush stepped up his game, hitting back at Trump repeatedly and drawing the support form a friendly audience. And Gov. John Kasich of Ohio again offered a different approach, delivering an upbeat message and challenging all his rivals to stop negative campaigning to focus on their proposed solutions to the nation’s problems.
Former President Bush is due in South Carolina this week to campaign for his brother, and Trump took him on with a vengeance.
His target was the Iraq war. “They lied,” Trump said of the Bush administration’s rationale for invading Iraq in 2003. “They said there were weapons of mass destruction and they knew there were none.”
Jeb Bush recoiled. “I’m sick and tired of Barack Obama blaming my brother for all the problems that he’s had,” Bush said,.
Bush praised his family. “My dad is the greatest man alive in my mind. While Donald Trump was building a reality TV show my brother was building a security apparatus to keep us safe.”
Rubio jumped in. “I thank God all the time that it was George W. Bush in the White House on 9/11, not Al Gore,” he said.
Trump would not relent. “The World Trade Center came down. That is not safe, Marco,” he said.
“The World Trade Center came down because Bill Clinton didn’t kill Osama bin Laden when he had a chance to kill him,” Rubio fired back.
Rubio was striving to come back from a stumbling debate performance a week ago that hurt him deeply in the New Hampshire primary.
He needed a strong debate - he vigorously outlined his tax plan and showed some foreign policy acumen — but he was often lost in the Trump-Bush brawl.
Rubio’s most tense moment came as Cruz blasted Rubio for what he called the Rubio-Schumer immigration plan, tying him to liberal Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.
Rubio, Cruz argued, supported citizenship for all undocumented immigrants, which is not so. Cruz cited comments Rubio made on Univision. How could he know what I said, Rubio said, because he doesn’t speak Spanish
Bush criticized Trump’s suggestion that the U.S. partner with Russia to defeat Islamic State rebels.
“The very basic fact is Vladimir Putin is not going to be an ally of the United States,” Bush said. “The world knows this.”
Bush also accused Trump of getting his foreign policy “from the shows,” a reference to the time Trump said he took foreign policy advice from Sunday TV talk shows. “This is a man who insults his way to the nomination.”
When the audience booed Trump for his remarks, Trump dismissed the reaction as catcalls from Bush-supporting “lobbyists.”