GREENVILLE, S.C. (AP) — Republican presidential candidates jousted over immigration and foreign policy in a raucous debate that was shaken by the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia hours before they took the stage.
Scalia’s death thrust the future of the high court into the center of a heated presidential campaign. In their debate Saturday night, the GOP candidates insisted that President Barack Obama step aside and let his successor nominate Scalia’s replacement instead, a position the White House vigorously opposed.
Among the contenders, only Jeb Bush said Obama had “every right” to nominate a justice during his final year in office. The former Florida governor said the presidency must be a strong office – though he added that he didn’t expect Obama to pick a candidate who could win consensus support.
The five other candidates on the stage urged the Republican-led Senate to block any attempts by the president to get his third nominee on the court.
“It’s up to Mitch McConnell and everybody else to stop it,” Donald Trump said. “It’s called delay, delay, delay.”
A debate that began with a moment of silence for Scalia devolved quickly into fighting between Trump and Bush, then between Trump and Cruz. The exchanges highlighted the bad blood between the billionaire businessman and his rivals as the race turns to South Carolina, a state known for rough-and-tumble politics, where the next Republican primary will take place in one week.
Trump, repeatedly interrupting his rivals, lashed out at Cruz after the Texas senator challenged his conservative credentials, calling him the “single-biggest liar” and a “nasty guy.” The real estate mogul also accused Bush of lying about Trump’s business record and said Bush’s brother – former President George W. Bush – lied to the public about the Iraq war.
Bush, who has been among the most aggressive Republican candidates in taking on Trump, said that while he didn’t mind the businessman criticizing him – “It’s blood sport for him” – he was “sick and tired of him going after my family.”
Trump was jeered lustily by the audience in Greenville, South Carolina, a state where the Bush family is popular with Republicans. George W. Bush plans to campaign with his brother in Charleston Monday, making his first public foray into the 2016 race.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich sought to inject the election’s high stakes into the discussion in the midst of the fiery exchanges between his competitors.
“I think we’re fixing to lose the election to Hillary Clinton if we don’t stop this,” Kasich said.
The governor’s warnings did little to deter his feisty colleagues.
Cruz and Sen. Marco Rubio also revived their fight over immigration, with the Texas senator haranguing his Florida counterpart for sponsoring failed legislation that would have created a pathway to citizenship for many of those in the United States illegally. Cruz also accused Rubio of taking a more moderate approach when speaking to Spanish-language media in an attempt to appeal to Hispanics.
“I don’t know how he knows what I said on Univision – he doesn’t speak Spanish,” Rubio shot back.
Rubio entered the debate under immense pressure following his disappointing fifth-place finish in the New Hampshire primary. He stumbled badly in a debate days before that vote.
Rubio appeared more fluid in Saturday’s contest, including during a robust defense of his proposed 25 percent corporate tax rate – which is not as much of a tax cut as many of his rivals are pitching. Rubio said his idea would leave enough revenue in the federal budget to triple the child tax credit for working families with children.
Just six contenders took the debate stage, far from the long line of candidates who participated in earlier GOP events. Yet the Republican race remains deeply uncertain, with party elites still hoping that one of the more mainstream candidates will rise up to challenge Trump and Cruz. Many GOP leaders believe both would be unelectable in November.
Scalia’s sudden death – and the chance to replace him – could serve as a reminder for voters of the consequences of elections.
Cruz cast the moment in stark terms, saying allowing another Obama nominee to be approved would amount to Republicans giving up control of the Supreme Court for a generation.
“One of the most important judgments for the men and women of South Carolina to make is 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 the court,” Cruz said.
Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson is fighting to stay in the mix in South Carolina. He was overshadowed in the debate by his more aggressive rivals but lined up with most of the field in saying he agreed Republicans should not allow a Supreme Court justice to be appointed during Obama’s final year in office.
Bush and Kasich both see an opening in South Carolina after Rubio’s stumbles.
Kasich defended himself against attacks on his conservative credentials, particularly his decision to expand Medicaid in Ohio despite resistance from his GOP-led Legislature. Kasich argued that his decision was a good deal for the state in the long run.
“We want everyone to rise and we will make them personally responsible for the help they get,” said Kasich, whose fledgling campaign gained new life after a second-place finish in the New Hampshire primary.
WASHINGTON (AP) — The Republican presidential debaters misfired in assertions about Supreme Court nominees, Syria, immigration and more.
A look at some of the claims Saturday night and how they compare with the facts:
TED CRUZ: “We have 80 years of precedent of not confirming Supreme Court justices in an election year.”
MARCO RUBIO: “It has been over 80 years since a lame-duck president has appointed a Supreme Court justice.”
THE FACTS: Cruz is wrong. Rubio is in the ballpark.
Anthony Kennedy was confirmed by the Senate on Feb. 3, 1988, in the final year of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, by a 97-0 vote. That was a presidential election year.
Presidents don’t appoint justices to the high court; they nominate them for Senate confirmation. Kennedy was nominated in 1987 and confirmed the next year. That makes Rubio closer to correct.
Rubio and other Republicans argued that President Barack Obama, as a lame duck, should not fill the vacancy created by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia but leave it to the next president – which they hope will be one of them.
But the example of Kennedy, who is still on the court, shows that presidents in their last year aren’t always powerless in shaping the court – and not shy about trying.
JEB BUSH: “Russia is not taking out ISIS. They’re attacking our team.”
DONALD TRUMP: “Jeb is so wrong. You’ve got to fight ISIS first. … We’ve been in the Middle East for 15 years, and we haven’t won anything. We’ve spent $5 trillion in the Middle East.”
THE FACTS: Both spoke with too broad a brush. Russia is bombing both the Islamic State group and Western-backed rebels. But the U.S. and its partners say the majority of Russia’s strikes haven’t targeted IS fighters, and that its most recent offensive near Aleppo is primarily hitting “moderate” opposition forces.
As with most things in Syria, however, the picture is unclear because some of the moderates are fighting alongside other extremist groups, like the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front.
Trump’s figure for total U.S. expenditures in the Middle East, though, appears significantly inflated. In November, Trump cited a $2 trillion figure. That number roughly matches the amount of money the U.S. spent fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq between 2001 and 2015, according to the bipartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.
CRUZ on a failed 2013 immigration overhaul: “I stood with (Sen.) Jeff Sessions and (Rep.) Steven King and the American people to defeat that amnesty plan. The question for anyone on illegal immigration is, where were you in that fight?”
RUBIO: “When that issue was being debated, Ted Cruz at a committee hearing very passionately said, ‘I want immigration reform to pass, I want people to be able to come out of the shadows.’ He proposed an amendment that would have legalized people here. … So he either wasn’t telling the truth then, or he isn’t telling the truth now.”
THE FACTS: Rubio’s account is mostly right. While Cruz has been against an explicit path to citizenship for people in the country illegally, he did introduce legislation in that 2013 bill that proposed eventual legal status for millions of people. He also publicly supported the legislation in the Senate and urged its passing.
He has since said his amendment was designed to help kill the broader bill. The immigration bill co-authored by Rubio failed to pass in the House.
RUBIO: “Our economy is flat, it’s not creating jobs the way it once did.”
THE FACTS: While the recovery after the Great Recession has at times been sluggish, in the past two years job creation has been healthy. In 2014, employers added 3 million jobs, the most in 15 years. Job creation slowed to 2.7 million last year – still, the second-most since 1999.
CRUZ: “The nonpartisan Tax Foundation estimated (my) simple flat tax that would produce 4.9 million new jobs, it would increase capital investment by 44 percent and would lift everyone’s income by double digits.”
THE FACTS: That’s a selective reading of the foundation’s analysis, which found that his plan would reduce tax revenues by $3.6 trillion over 10 years, requiring massive spending cuts or hugely increasing federal budget deficits.
The right-leaning group did conclude that the plan would generate more jobs and growth. It assumed that the tax cuts would generate significant additional economic growth and therefore more revenue, an approach that not all economists agree with.
But even taking that potential extra revenue into account, the foundation still concludes Cruz’s plan would lower revenue by $768 billion over the next 10 years.
TRUMP on Bush: “He put so much debt on Florida, and he increased spending so much, as soon as he got out of office, Florida crashed.”
THE FACTS: Trump is right that Florida’s economy tanked right after Bush left office, but he’s wrong about the reasons. The state was clobbered by the housing bubble and bust that eventually dragged the whole country into the worst recession since the 1930s.
The bubble was particularly harsh in the “sun and sand” states of Florida, Arizona, Nevada and California.
Home prices jumped 160 percent in Florida during Bush’s tenure from 1999 through 2006 – more than double the national increase of 74 percent -according to real estate data provider Zillow. Construction jobs surged and the boost to home values made many Floridians feel wealthier, leading them to spend more.
But home prices plummeted by half in the five years after Bush left office, according to Zillow data.
BEN CARSON: “When we have a debt of that nature, it causes the Fed to change their policy. It causes the central bank to keep the rates low, and who does that affect? Mr. Average, who used to go to the bank every Friday and put part of his check in the bank and watch it grow over three decades and be able to retire with a nice nest egg.”
THE FACTS: Carson misreads how the Federal Reserve works.
The size of the U.S. government’s debt, which is about $19 trillion, does not influence the Federal Reserve’s interest rate policies. The Fed seeks to keep unemployment low and inflation at about 2 percent a year.
Former Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke cut the short-term interest rate the Fed controls to nearly zero in December 2008 – before Barack Obama took office – and kept it that way for seven years.
It is true that the policy has significantly lowered the interest rates on bank savings accounts, but many savers have benefited in other ways. The S&P 500 stock market index nearly tripled from March 2009, when the market bottomed during the Great Recession, through the end of 2015.
Associated Press writers Alicia A. Caldwell and Bradley Klapper contributed to this report.
EDITOR’S NOTE – A look at political claims that take shortcuts with the facts or don’t tell the full story