The most important exchange of the evening came early in the night, when Donald J. Trump and Jeb Bush, a former governor of Florida, collided in an extended, personal clash over the Iraq war and President George W. Bush’s record on national security.
But for all of the candidates, the debate helped illustrate the broader state of the race, and each man’s approach to the final seven days before the crucial South Carolina primary on Saturday.
Jeb Bush Is Finally Going for It
After stalling and sputtering in his past confrontations with Mr. Trump, Mr. Bush came into Greenville eager for a fight. He went at Mr. Trump repeatedly, assailing him as insensitive to women and minorities, and criticizing his support for using eminent domain to annex private property. In South Carolina, a state with a large military population that backed Senator John McCain in its 2008 primary, Mr. Bush denounced Mr. Trump for having mocked Mr. McCain’s war service.
Mr. Bush expressed, more clearly than ever, his horror at Mr. Trump’s position in the race. He derided Mr. Trump as a man whose principal achievement was “building a reality show,” and reminded viewers in a tone of impatience, “We’re living in a dangerous world.”
It was the first confrontation in which Mr. Bush appeared, at moments, to have bested Mr. Trump. But it was also their last encounter before the South Carolina primary, and it may be difficult for Mr. Bush to make up for months of missed opportunities in just one night.
Trump Passes a Point of No Return
At times in the 2016 race, the Republican establishment has seemed, tentatively, to warm up to Mr. Trump, as perhaps a palatable alternative to Senator Ted Cruz of Texas.
The Greenville debate may have shattered any prospect of future accommodation: Mr. Trump declared forcefully, to a national audience, that President George W. Bush had deliberately lied to the country in order to start a war. Red-faced and shouting, Mr. Trump said President Bush was to blame for not averting the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
He also ridiculed Lindsey Graham, South Carolina’s senior senator, and described Planned Parenthood as a group that provides important health services to women. (He said he disapproved of its role performing abortions.)
These are extraordinarily provocative statements to make in a Republican primary here, and they would probably doom any other candidate. Mr. Trump’s supporters may not mind, but it would be difficult to overstate the extent to which traditional Republican leaders recoiled from his Saturday night rampage.
But consider the logic within. In a culture where “politics” has become an echo chamber — a vain hall of mirrors installed by the worship of rhetoric and self-regard — true politics, the art and science of victory, is dead. The kinds of action that arise from a corrupt political culture, from the corrupted idea that politics is a game of semiotics first, are, therefore, also corrupted: fake actions, actions without integrity, actions born to lose.
Trump is saying that, under George W. Bush, the Republican Party allowed its understanding of politics to be corrupted. For whatever reason, under Bush, the GOP became a party that let self-aware rhetorical posturing dictate the way policy was formulated. The result was failure across the board. Worst of all was the ensuing failure of memory as Republicans forgot the winning arts and sciences. In so doing, they enabled America to lose its way in the hall of mirrors — and lose its greatness.
Marco Rubio steadies the ship; Kasich being Kasich
Other issues for the night surrounded around Marco Rubio and John Kasich, the former having to avoid another bad performance after New Hampshire and the latter working to build on his surprise second place finish.
Fortunately for Marco Rubio, with Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey out of the race, no other candidate challenged Mr. Rubio’s governing credentials with comparable vigor, and he avoided any big stumbles. On the question that tripped him up badly last time around, about his readiness to serve as president, the senator cited his decision to oppose an Obama administration plan for intervention in Syria as proof of his judgment in an emergency. But a steady night is different from a standout night, and Mr. Rubio did not appear to have the latter. If he is to make up ground in the polls here, he will have to do it on the stump and with paid advertising, rather than with an electrifying moment on national television.
After coming in second in New Hampshire, the big question about Gov. John R. Kasich’s campaign was whether he could appeal to Republicans outside the moderate, independent-minded constituency he wooed persistently in New Hampshire. On Saturday, he indicated pretty strongly that he will not change his message for a larger and more conservative audience.
Mr. Kasich continued to call for a lower-key and more genial race, defended his decision to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act and said that government has a compassionate role to play in people’s lives, arguing, “Economic growth is not an end unto itself.”
With a smaller group on the stage this time, the moderators handled the remaining candidates gently, and occasionally lingered on an individual contender to press for more specific answers. A moment of tension flared early when John Dickerson of CBS corrected an inaccurate statement by Mr. Cruz, who misstated the year Justice Anthony M. Kennedy was confirmed to the Supreme Court.
Yet, as he has done in every debate so far, Mr. Trump steamrollered over the moderators, seemingly at will, and constantly interrupted and talked over his opponents. As in each previous debate, there was no concerted effort to make him behave.
Summarised from: NY Times, The WEEK