Justice Antonin Scalia’s death jolts GOP debate

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GREENVILLE, South Carolina — Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump called on Senate Republicans to block any effort by President Barack Obama to nominate a successor to Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.

Trump, who called Scalia’s death a “tremendous blow to conservatism,” said he was certain Obama would make a nomination whether Republicans like it or not. He called on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to slam the brakes.

“It’s called delay, delay, delay,” Trump said at the final Republican debate before the South Carolina primary.

Ted Cruz, who has billed himself as a staunch defender of the Constitution, said Scalia’s passing underscored the high stakes of the 2016 election. The country is only “one justice away,” the Texas senator warned, of the Supreme Court striking down important decisions on issues like abortion and religious liberty.

The current election is about “who on this stage has the background, the principle, the character, the judgment and the strength of resolve to nominate and confirm principled constitutionalists to this court,” Cruz added. “That will be what I will do if I’m elected president.”

John Kasich, fresh off a second-place finish in New Hampshire, and Jeb Bush also said the next administration should choose Scalia’s successor. Bush added that the president “of course” has the right to nominate a Supreme Court justice, but said he was certain Obama’s pick would not have consensus support.

“The next president needs to appoint someone with a proven conservative record similar to Justice Scalia,” the former Florida governor said.

Marco Rubio hailed Scalia as “one of the great justices of the history of this republic,” lauding the late Justice for consistently defending the “original meaning of the Constitution.”

Scalia’s death, which was announced on Saturday, jolted the Republican presidential debate here hours later. CBS News, the host of the debate, kicked off the event with a tribute to Scalia and a moment of silence.

The debate features six Republican presidential candidates and comes exactly one week before South Carolina voters head to the polls in the first southern primary of the 2016 election season. In the past few weeks, voting has started and a handful of candidates have left the race, raising the stakes for the remaining contenders hoping to go the distance.

Clashing over George W. Bush

One of the most electric — and personally charged— exchanges of the night took place between Trump and Bush over the legacy of George W. Bush, who will hit the campaign trail in South Carolina on Monday to stump for his brother.

Trump blasted the former president and called the war that he waged in Iraq a “big fat mistake.”

Bush hit back strongly, saying, “I’m sick and tired of Barack Obama blaming my brother for all of the problems” he faces. He then quickly turned the fire on Trump, saying, “While Donald Trump was building a reality TV show, my brother was building a security apparatus” to keep the country safe.

Trump lashed back, saying it was under Bush’s watch that the World Trade Center was attacked on September 11, 2001.

“That’s not keeping us safe,” he said, spurring the audience to boo loudly in disapproval of Trump.

Rubio joined in the conversation by coming to George W. Bush’s defense.

“He kept us safe and I’m forever grateful,” the Florida senator said, adding that the terrorist attacks of 2001 happened because Bill Clinton failed to kill Osama bin Laden when he had the chance.

Trump’s line of attack could serve to remind voters of Bush’s ties to the former president and revive hesitations about installing a political dynasty in the White House. But South Carolina is home to a large number of military personnel and veterans and Trump’s critique of the Iraq War could prove risky here.

Earlier in the debate, Bush and Trump clashed over the question of how to deal with Syria.

Bush accused Trump of promising to “accommodate Russia.”

When Trump hit back, saying, “Jeb is so wrong,” the audience again responded to the businessman with boos. “Jeb is so wrong. You’ve got to fight ISIS first.”

Bush came back at Trump, accusing him of getting his foreign policy advice from the “shows.”

“This is a man who insults his way to the nomination,” Bush said.

Immigration battle

As they have in previous debates, Rubio and Cruz got into a cage match over their records on immigration reform.

When asked about his plan to curb illegal immigration, Cruz said there was a “sharp difference on immigration” on the debate stage, before delivering his first punch at Rubio on the issue.

“When Harry Reid and Chuck Schumer and establishment Republicans were leading the fight to pass a massive amnesty plan,” Cruz said he was on the side to defeat what he called the “Rubio-Schumer amnesty plan.”

Rubio accused his Senate colleague of spreading “lies.”

“He either wasn’t telling the truth then, or isn’t telling the truth now,” Rubio said. “To argue that he’s a purist on immigration is just not truth.”

When Cruz said Rubio has a long record of supporting amnesty and referenced comments he made on Univision, Rubio shot back: “I don’t know how he knows what I said on Univision because he doesn’t speak Spanish.”

Cruz quickly responded by speaking in Spanish.

What’s at stake

For Bush, South Carolina is a state that both his father and brother won. The former Florida governor is looking to capitalize on George W. Bush’s popularity in the state by bringing the former president out to campaign with him for the first time Monday. Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina senator who ended his own bid for president in December, will campaign for Bush across the state.

Rubio also has reason to hope for a strong showing here. Some of his top campaign aides, including campaign manager Terry Sullivan, are Palmetto State veterans who have been laying the groundwork in the state for months. The Florida senator also earned the endorsement of two prominent members of Congress from this state: Sen. Tim Scott and Rep. Trey Gowdy.

The pressure is particularly intense Saturday for Rubio, who was rattled by former rival Chris Christie during a memorable moment at the last debate in New Hampshire.

For Kasich, South Carolina presents more of an uphill battle. The Ohio governor has largely campaigned on a moderate message, and though he is riding high from a second-place finish in New Hampshire this week, appealing to a more conservative base in South Carolina will be a tough task.

Carson’s path forward is unclear. He briefly topped national polls and was competitive in Iowa, where he appealed to the state’s large evangelical constituency. But after a series of missteps and the loss of top campaign staffers, Carson has not been able to regain momentum.

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