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Debate live blog: Republicans meet in South Carolina after Justice Scalia’s death

February 13, 2016

Six Republican presidential candidates held a contentious debate tonight in Greenvile, S.C., a week before the GOP primary there. It came hours after the news of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s death, and in addition to immigration and national security, the canddiates discussed the Supreme Court.

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  • Washington Post Staff
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We watched the whole thing, and boiled it down to the highlights:

  • Washington Post Staff
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  • Katie Zezima
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You’ll hear those lines again. Guaranteed. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

Expect to hear Donald Trump’s comments on Planned Parenthood again. And again. And again. But not from him.

“It does wonderful things, but not as it relates to abortion,” Trump said. “Wonderful things that have to do with women’s health.”

Ted Cruz has made attempting to pull federal funding for the organization one of his signature issues in the wake of videos showing Planned Parenthood discussing the sale of fetal tissue in a seemingly cavalier fashion. He pounced.

“His entire life, he’s supported liberals,” Cruz said of Trump.

Cruz will undoubtedly use Trump’s words against him in South Carolina this week. Cruz talks about Planned Parenthood often on the campaign trail, stating he will ask the Department of Justice to investigate the organization if he is elected president.

There was a lot more to unpack in the rough exchange between the two. Trump repeatedly called Cruz a liar.

“Why do you lie? Why do you lie?” Trump asked Cruz.

Cruz, for his part, was able to take his usual knocks on Trump to a much larger stage, stating the businessman has donated to Democrats and supports eminent domain.

  • Elise Viebeck
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Trump’s new debate strategy: attack the live audience. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

That’s according to The Post’s Matea Gold, who takes readers inside the donor-only scene at the presidential debates. From the big names, to the massive buffets, to the sports metaphors, her latest story has it all:

The outsize spectacle of this primary season’s Republican debates has made the events hot-ticket items for wealthy donors, who are flocking to them as if they were political bowl games.

“It’s like Old Home Week,” said Ray Washburne, the national finance chair for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s campaign, who has been to all six GOP primary debates held so far. “Even though we’re all on different sides, it’s fun to meet up.”

Major fundraisers and top contributors fly in on private jets and gather in hotel suites before start time, marveling over the latest twists in the race. Once inside the venue, they snap selfies in front of the stage. They anxiously root for their favored candidates, swapping text messages with friends as the jabs fly back and forth …

The donor scrutiny was particularly intense at last month’s forum at the Venetian resort in Las Vegas. Sitting front and center in the audience were billionaire casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and his wife, Miriam, who have not publicly declared their support for a candidate. Seated nearby were Oklahoma oil-and-gas ­entrepreneur Harold Hamm and two major Rubio backers, New York hedge-fund manager Paul Singer and North Carolina retail executive Art Pope.

Chicago Cubs co-owner Todd Ricketts was also on hand, attending his third debate of the election season, as was Dallas investor Doug Deason, a Cruz supporter who flew in for his first.

  • Rebecca Sinderbrand
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Not a Roberts fan anymore. JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

David Weigel and Katie Zezima charted Ted Cruz’s evolution from being a fan of Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, to…well, what he is now:

Cruz, a former Supreme Court clerk who tailored his law school experience to get the job, has made criticizing the high court a central part of his presidential campaign. The Texas Republican, who is trying to gain the support of conservatives and evangelical Christians, soured on the court after the ACA decision and after it ruled in June that same-sex marriage is legal nationwide.

In the past few months, Cruz has taken particular aim at Roberts, whom Cruz wrote in his book “A Time for Truth” was “the best Supreme Court advocate of your generation.” Roberts wrote the opinion upholding the health-care law; Cruz wants to repeal the law. Saturday, while addressing the conservative Eagle Forum’s conference in St. Louis, Cruz asked the room to imagine what America would be like if Roberts and retired justice David Souter were never on the court. In the past, Cruz has also criticized Justice Anthony Kennedy.

“In 1990, in one room, was sitting David Souter,” said Cruz. “In another room was sitting Edith Jones, the rock-ribbed conservative jurist of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. George Herbert Walker Bush picked David Souter. Let’s fast-forward to 2005. In 2005, in one room was John Roberts, and in another room was my former boss, Mike Luttig, a rock-ribbed conservative jurist on the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals — and George W. Bush picked John Roberts.”

A man in the crowd muttered his disapproval: “Thank you, Bushes.”

Cruz explained that he was not questioning the Bushes’ conservatism. “It’s that it was easy,” he said. “Neither Souter nor Roberts had said much of anything. They didn’t have a paper trail. They wouldn’t have much of a fight. Whereas if they actually nominated a conservative, then they would have had fights. Let me tell you the difference of that. If instead of David Souter and John Roberts, the Presidents Bush had nominated Edith Jones and Mike Luttig, Obamacare would have been struck down three years ago, and the marriage laws of every state would still be on the books.”

Get the full story here.

  • Scott Clement
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BY THE NUMBERS | Illegal immigration was again a flash point in Saturday’s debate, with candidates disagreeing over whether to deport the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. or provide a form of legal status. But how important is immigration in the decisions of primary voters?

Few voters in Iowa and New Hampshire contests said it was the most important issue in their vote. Between 13 and 15 percent of Republican caucus-goers and primary voters said immigration was the most important issue facing the country, according to exit and entrance polls, with significantly more voters choosing the economy, the budget deficit and terrorism.

Yet voters’ positions on the immigration issue are closely related to who they support. In New Hampshire, Trump’s support was more than twice as high among voters who said illegal immigrants working in this country should be deported (51 percent) than among those who support providing legal status (24 percent). Trump won a plurality of voters in both groups, but the tight correlation in his support for deporting immigrants is one of the clearest cleavages in the GOP race.

Trump’s position also has support nationally within the party — a November Washington Post-ABC News poll found 57 percent of Republicans support an effort by the federal government to deport all undocumented immigrants in the U.S. Trump’s support was 14 percentage points higher among those who support deportation than among Republicans overall.

  • Elise Viebeck
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THE CONTENDERS | Jeb Bush criticism of John Kasich for accepting federal dollars to expand Medicaid eligibility in Ohio under ObamaCare highligjts a continuing vulnerability for the Ohio governor.

It’s a weak spot for Kasich in a Republican field that uniformly opposes the 2010 health care law. Kasich is also a critic of the Affordable Care Act — he says he would repeal it as president — but he defends his expansion to accept the Medicaid expansion, which was made optional for states by the Supreme Court in 2012.

“Expanding ObamaCare is what we’re talking about,” Bush said at the debate. “And ObamaCare’s expansion, even though the federal government is paying for the great majority of it, is creating further debt on the backs of our children and grandchildren.”

Bush’s campaign circulated the video in an email:

Bush has been on the warpath about Kasich’s Medicaid decision all week.

According to the Columbus Dispatch, he told a gathering in suburban Charleston on Wednesday that Kasich’s choice made “more and more people dependent upon government.”

Kasich defended the expansion, saying it is saving lives.

“I am for repealing Obamacare,” Kasich said at a pancake restaurant near Myrtle Beach, the Dispatch reported. “But expanding Medicaid at this point, bringing our dollars back is working. It’s saving money and it’s saving lives. And that’s what really matters at the end of the day.”

Kasich announced his support for the Medicaid expansion in 2013. The policy extends medical coverage to adults living at or below 138 percent of the federal poverty line.

  • Katie Zezima
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THE CONTENDERS | Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) has said his Spanish is “lousy” — for years, he did not speak it. He rarely uses it, only saying a word or two in the language at a time. Until tonight.

During his Senate campaign, Ted Cruz refused to debate his opponent in Spanish. Tonight, he rapidly spoke in Spanish on the debate stage as a retort to Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), after Rubio said Cruz can’t speak the language.

The exchange was part of a larger tussle between the two candidates on immigration, an issue they have spent months sparring over. Cruz has long accused Rubio of supporting citizenship for undocumented immigrants; Rubio has, for months, said Cruz is not as hard-line on immigration as he claims.

“Ted Cruz has been telling lies,” Rubio said, a claim Cruz said is “absolutely false.”

  • David Weigel
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THE CONTENDERS | Jeb Bush’s campaign quickly pronounced the first-hour exchange with Donald Trump a “knockout,” passing on a clip and the rave reviews of some conservative thought leaders. (“Jeb now bringing it,” according to National Review editor-in-chief Rich Lowry.) But if there was one moment where Trump spoke without quite understanding Republican voters, it was when Trump, tripling or quadrupling down, said the George W. Bush administration “lied about WMD.”

The problem: Republicans generally believe, against evidence, that Iraq held weapons of mass destruction when America invaded in 2003. In 2012, a poll conducted by a Dartmouth political scientist found that 63 percent of Republicans still thought this. Last year, a poll from Fairleigh Dickinson University’s Public Mind found a majority of Republicans, 51 percent believed WMD had been found in Iraq.

The insult-dance was so frenzied that it’s tough to tell what’ll stick. But Trump, with his savant’s approach to Republican politics, has correctly read that Republican voters are conflicted about Iraq. They are much less conflicted about whether they were misled — like most people they don’t want to think that.

  • Washington Post Staff
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  • Philip Rucker
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Jeb Bush just brought up Donald Trump’s criticism of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). Trump pushed back, but here’s what happened in July:

“He’s not a war hero,” Trump said at the Family Leadership Summit to about 3,000 social conservative activists. Sarcastically, Trump quipped, “He’s a war hero because he was captured.” Then, he added, “I like people that weren’t captured.”

And Bush’s reaction at the time:

Before then, Trump had been feuding with McCain, who accused Trump of drawing out “crazies” with an immigration-focused rally in Phoenix.

Trump said he considers prisoners of war to be heroes — although he called Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl an exception — but accused McCain of doing little to help veterans in the Senate.

“John McCain has not done enough for the veterans,” Trump told reporters. “The veterans in this country are suffering. The veterans in this country are treated as third-class citizens. John McCain talks a lot, but he doesn’t do anything.”

Trump grew hot and agitated by repeated and sharp questioning from reporters, who were asking him to explain his earlier suggestion that McCain should not be considered a war hero because he had been captured.

“I like the people that don’t get captured, and I respect the people that do get captured,” Trump said.

But he did not answer the questions about McCain directly. He snapped at one persistent reporter, “Go back to being a pundit.”

  • Scott Clement
  • ·

BY THE NUMBERS | Donald Trump’s criticism of President George W. Bush’s decision to go to war with Iraq and performance on keeping the nation safe from terrorism is out of line with attitudes of most Republicans in polls during Bush’s presidency — and afterward.

A January 2007 Washington Post-ABC News poll found 83 percent of Republicans thought Bush had made the country “safer and more secure,” while 17 percent said he had not. Later that year Post-ABC poll found 85 percent of Republicans approved of the way Bush handled the U.S. campaign against terrorism, while only 12 percent disapproved.

Republicans are less unanimous in support of Bush’s decision on the Iraq war, but a a Post-ABC poll last May found 54 percent of Republicans saying the Iraq war was worth fighting, while 41 percent said it was not.

  • Ed O'Keefe
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Faceoff over the Bush presidency. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

THE CONTENDERS | Donald Trump’s remark that 9/11 happened under George W. Bush’s “reign” — which, it’s worth noting, isn’t a new one for him — sparked pushback from Jeb Bush that drew an enthusiastic response from the South Carolina audience tonight. It wasn’t the first time he’s used the line that he’s “sick and tired of President Obama blaming my brother” — or seen it land well.

The former Florida governor’s line went over very well with crowds last weekend in New Hampshire, and this week in the Palmetto State. When he first used it last Sunday in Nashua, the crowd of about 500 people jumped to its feet.

Stunned by the response, Bush simply said: “Thank you,” before moving on.

Tonight, Bush also tried to get off a line about how Trump was attacking his mother, but couldn’t quite get it out. He’s clearly been rehearsing for these types of attacks, and had something ready — but didn’t get a chance to use it.

Either way, Bush’s relentless retorts to Trump are getting under the front-runner’s skin. That’s by design. The Bush camp now knows that the more they push back, the harder Trump will try, the redder his face will get, and the more the crowd will boo.

And how’s this for neighbors helping neighbors? Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who lives 12 minutes from Jeb Bush in Miami, cogently summed up what many Americans, particularly Republicans, believe about George W. Bush’s presidency: Thank God he was president keeping us safe. Why Jeb Bush hasn’t been able to come up with a similar line perhaps encapsulates the trouble he’s had this entire cycle dealing with his family legacy.

As The Post reported Saturday, polling by South Carolina Republicans shows that George W. Bush enjoys an 84 percent favorable rating with Palmetto State Republicans. Jeb Bush sees little harm in so passionately defending his older brother in South Carolina — but such strong words might come back to bite him in other states where the 43rd president isn’t as popular.

“It is clear Trump does not have the temperament, knowledge or steady hand to be Commander-in-Chief of the nation’s armed forces,” the Bush team said in a statement.

The Bush campaign also labeled the latest fight “The Knockout in Greenville.” Trump has a wide lead in South Carolina, so whether that’s how a wider audience saw tonight’s tussle remains to be seen.

  • Chris Cillizza
  • ·

Chris Cillizza interviewed Andy Shain, the politic reporter for The State newspaper. He talked about the power of Donald Trump in the state, but here’s what he has to say about the Bushes as George W. Bush’s name is repeatedly invoked.

Q: There’s a lot of talk coming from Jeb Bush’s campaign that South Carolina is “Bush country.” George W. Bush is even in a new radio ad for his brother in the state. How real is the “Bush country” idea and from where does it spring?

Shain: His father and brother won South Carolina’s primaries on the way to the White House.

This was the first Southern state where they claimed victories.

The family still has deep support among the state’s Republican establishment. They all went with Lindsey Graham (out of loyalty to a home-state politician), and you can see how it hurt Bush’s contributions in the state. Graham collected $7 for every $1 Bush gathered.

Now a majority of those big-time Graham 2016 backers have joined the Bush camp. The question is whether that matters in the age of micro-targeting of voters based on their social media habits and the rock concert-sized crowds Trump is attracting.

Another problem are the elites jumping to Trump. Lt. Gov. Henry McMaster, a former state attorney general and S.C. GOP party chairman, was the first to back the unconventional front-runner.

This week, businessman Bill Stern, who was on the state’s George W. Bush 2000 finance team and a co-chair of Graham’s presidential run, came out for Trump.

It’s an alternate universe for Republicans in South Carolina now.

Can a visit by W. on Monday to North Charleston change that and remind Republicans why they need to go back to the establishment? Ask the thousands of Trump fanatics at his next rally.

  • Katie Zezima
  • ·

He wants to change SCOTUS. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

Ted Cruz has made blasting the Supreme Court a central part of his presidential campaign. In the wake of the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, he wants the Senate to stop President Obama from appointing a justice to the court.

“The Senate needs to stand strong and say we are not going to give up the U.S. Supreme Court for a generation by allowing Barack Obama to make one more liberal appointee,” Cruz said. The Texas Republican declared that the country has “80 years of precedent” of not confirming a nominee to the court in election years, leading to an odd exchange with moderator John Dickerson over whether Justice Anthony Kennedy was confirmed or nominated in 1987 or 1988. (Kennedy was nominated in 1987 and confirmed in 1988).

Cruz has made excoriating the court a centerpiece of his presidential campaign – even though he a long history with the body. He was a clerk for Chief Justice William Renhquist from 1996 to 1997 and argued before the body nine times. The Texas Republican has long admired Scalia. In his book, “A Time for Truth,” Cruz recounted the late justice’s “mischievous sense of humor.”

During the presidential campaign, however, Cruz has rarely spoken highly of the court, instead making calls for changing it a large part of his platform. After the court upheld a key portion of the Affordable Care Act and legalized same-sex marriage Cruz called for judicial retention elections for members of the court.

“We are one justice away from a Supreme Court that will strike down every restriction on abortion,” Cruz said during the debate, reverse decisions on guns and undermine religious liberty.

He has made similar arguments about the Supreme Court on the campaign trail.

In recent months he has told audiences that the nation is one justice away from a “radical five justice liberal majority.” It is, he said, Friday at Bob Jones University in Greenville, S.C., one justice away from “mandating unlimited abortion on demand up until the moment of birth, partial birth, with taxpayer funding and no parental notification,” the court “ordering veterans memorials torn down all over this country,” and taking crosses and Stars of David off the tombstones of soldiers.

“We are one justice away from the Supreme Court concluding that no individual .. has any right to keep and bear arms,” Cruz said Friday.

In a statement Saturday, Cruz said the country “mourns the loss of one of the greatest Justices in history.”

Cruz said Scalia changed how courts interpret the Constitution, turning them toward the actual text after “decades of judicial activism.” The statement said Scalia was an “unrelenting” defender of religious liberty, a topic Cruz often speaks of on the campaign trail, and federalism.

“Justice Scalia’s three decades on the Court was one of President Reagan’s most consequential legacies,” Cruz wrote.

  • David Weigel
  • ·

THE CONTENDERS | Not long after the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley picked up the Overton Window and lobbed it a hundred yards. “It’s been standard practice over the last 80 years to not confirm Supreme Court nominees during a presidential election year,” he said.

That was not a widely-circulated factoid before this afternoon. After all, the Supreme Court existed long before that accidental tradition, and the “80 years” number only comports if the confirmation of Anthony Kennedy, in February 1988, is struck because Kennedy was nominated in 1987.

At the start of tonight’s debate, both of the remaining Republican senators in the race used the Grassley line, but got it slightly wrong. In Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-Fla.) words, it had been 80 years “since a lame duck president nominated someone to the Supreme Court.” That wasn’t true at all; the Kennedy nomination followed the unsuccessful nominations of Robert Bork and Douglas Ginsburg, and President Ronald Reagan made all three after the 1986 midterm elections that cost his party the Senate. He was only as much of a lame duck as President Obama.

When Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) got the question, the candidate universally recognized as the best to discuss this said that the 80 year tradition was of the Senate “not confirming a nominee” in the year of a presidential election. That led to an awkward exchange with CBS News moderator John Dickerson, who wanted to clarify whether Cruz meant “confirm” or “nominate.”

Talking points, like sausages, are no fun to watch being made.

  • Karen Tumulty
  • ·

Social issues will be in the spotlight. (Photo by Astrid Riecken For The Washington Post)

The U.S. Supreme Court — and the array of contentious social issues that it decides — has now become a major focus of the 2016 election, and is almost certain to remain that way for the rest of the year.

The unexpected death Saturday of Justice Antonin Scalia, regarded as the dominant figure of the court’s conservative majority, has left it deeply divided along ideological lines, much as the country is.

With a year left to go in President Obama’s term, it is likely to be left to his successor to appoint a replacement, who would determine whether the court leans left or right.

Shortly after the announcement of Scalia’s death, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) issued a statement saying that the Senate should not confirm a replacement until after the election. Obama plans to send a nominee to the Senate, but it is unlikely any could get through, especially given the fact that two senators are among those vying for the GOP nomination.

“The American people should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court justice,” McConnell said.

That elevates the makeup of the court to a front-line issue in the presidential race. It also appears certain to become a central focus in Senate races across the country, as that chamber has the power to confirm whomever the next chief executive would choose.

The candidates are certain to be pressed — constantly — to describe the qualifications they will look for in a nominee, as well as the litmus-test questions that would determine their choices.

Full story here

  • Scott Clement
  • ·

BY THE NUMBERS | The unexpected death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia sets up a major political battle over his replacement — one that is likely to become a fervent rallying point for Republicans in the presidential election year.

Republicans and conservatives have become exceptionally frustrated with the Court after major decisions legalizing gay marriage in 2015 and upholding Obamacare (twice). Just 33 percent of Republicans had a favorable impression of the Supreme Court in a Pew Research Center survey last summer, down from 50 percent before its decision on same-sex marriage. Pew reported Republican views of the court were more negative than at any point in three decades of surveys.


Democrats were far more positive, with 62 percent rating the court favorably, and liberal Democrats were most positive with 70 percent seeing the court in a positive light. The survey also found ratings of the court tracked closely with support for legalizing same-sex marriage and the 2010 Affordable Care Act, an indication Americans have aligned their view of the court around these major decisions.

Given Republicans’ broad recent skepticism of the court, the prospect that the conservative Scalia might be replaced by an Obama-appointed justice could become a major unifying issue for conservatives in the 2016 election.

That would mark a break from 2012, when Supreme Court appointments ranked as less important in Americans’ presidential voting decisions. A July 2012 Washington Post-ABC News poll found 49 percent saying court appointments were “extremely” or “very” important in the vote, similar to immigration but far below the economy, health care and the budget deficit.

Obama also held an advantage over Romney on handling court appointments — 48 percent trusted Obama more to handle the issue, while 37 percent trusted Romney, a clearer edge than on other issues.

  • Jenna Johnson
  • ·

in the crosshairs. REUTERS/Mike Carlson

GREENVILLE, S.C. — Donald Trump has been the Republican front-runner for months — yet most of his rivals avoid attacking him in debates, and they have yet to join forces against him on the debate stage.

But now we are in South Carolina. The stakes are high and the clock is running out for some candidates. In the past few days, several contenders and their allied super PACs have aggressively gone after Trump — and Trump’s top aides expect the attacks to continue on the debate stage.

What might we hear from the rest of the GOP field tonight?

Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida, has long criticized Trump’s politically incorrect statements and that continued this week, with Bush scolding Trump for dropping obscenities during his political rallies. Right to Rise, the pro-Bush super PAC, released two attack ads on Friday: One features an ice sculpture likeness of Trump that melts on screen and dramatically falls apart while a narrator criticizes Trump’s stances on social issues like abortion and his business practices. The other boasts that Bush has been the only candidate to stand up to Trump, while others have opted to “suck up” or “run away in fear.” Bush has been Trump’s No. 1 target this week. Trump has accused him of being low-energy, sleepy and controlled by major donors.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) released an ad on Thursday that accuses Trump of having “bankrolled politicians to steamroll the little guy” and criticizes Trump’s support of eminent domain. Trump has meanwhile accused Cruz of cheating in the Iowa caucuses and being a dishonest person. Trump has also threaten to legally challenge Cruz’s eligibility for the White House, as he was born in Canada to an American mother.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who has long refrained from attacking Trump, let loose this week and said on Thursday that the businessman “has zero foreign policy experience” and that “negotiating a hotel deal in another country is not foreign policy experience.” Trump has mostly left Rubio alone, focusing his attacks on Bush and Cruz.

  • Sean Sullivan
  • ·

President Obama is also scheduled to speak just before the debate. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

A Republican presidential field that shrank this week to six candidates will debate Saturday night in South Carolina, just hours after the sudden news of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s death, which triggered swift reactions from the candidates.

Scalia was beloved by conservatives. His death and the subject of who will replace him figure to become major topics of conversation in the debate and in the broader campaign.

Full story here

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