GREENVILLE, S.C. — As Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) bickered over immigration policy during the Republican debate Saturday night, Donald Trump was given the chance to weigh in — and he immediately turned to another candidate.
“The weakest person on this stage by far on illegal immigration is Jeb Bush,” Trump said, pointing at the former governor of Florida. “He is so weak on illegal immigration it’s laughable, and everybody knows it.”
Bush responded with a shrug: “This is the standard operating procedure, to disparage me. That’s fine.”
“Spend a little more money on the commercials,” Trump snipped.
“If you want to talk about weakness — you want to talk about weakness?” Bush snapped back. “It’s weak to disparage women.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Trump said, shaking his head as many in the audience booed.
The two engaged in eight of these nasty tiffs Saturday night, clashing in broad terms over how best to fight terrorism, the mistakes of the Iraq War, immigration, eminent domain, Ronald Reagan, super PACs, attack ads and their differing abilities to manage budgets.
It was a dramatic escalation of a months-long feud between two vastly different candidates: Bush, who brings the Republican establishment and his family legacy to the race, vs. Trump, the ultimate outsider candidate who has completely upended the traditional process of selecting a Republican nominee. At times, the debate felt like a verbal death match, both seemingly intent on destroying the other before the night was over.
It was the stark culmination of years of tension between Trump and the Bushes — a long-running battle pitting a patrician clan of presidents, governors and financiers against a loud Queens-raised dealmaker with a penchant for conflict and showmanship.
Throughout the night, Bush painted Trump as a reality-television star who is not qualified for the White House because he “gets his foreign policy from the shows” and considers attacking people a “blood sport.” Trump hit Bush again and again for his heavy campaign spending and meager results, while accusing him of being “not a good governor” and allowing Florida’s economy to crash. Trump also criticized Bush’s brother for not preventing the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and seemed to accuse President George W. Bush of lying about finding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq before going to war.
Bush then uninvited Trump from a rally on Monday that will feature his brother, and Trump said he didn’t want to go anyway.
Trump repeatedly interrupted Bush, who at one point exploded: “Let me finish!” When Bush did the same thing, Trump said: “Excuse me, Jeb.” And as the donor-heavy audience repeatedly booed Trump, he at one point glared in their direction and said: “I only tell the truth, lobbyists.”
At another point, when Bush was praising his mother, Trump mumbled: “She should be running.”
Bush, once the presumed front-runner, has struggled in the polls, and this debate might have been one of his last chances to truly damage Trump. Meanwhile, Trump has dominated the polls for months and is riding a wave of confidence following a decisive win in New Hampshire last week.
Yet even with a clear lead, Trump won’t stop attacking Bush; at his rallies, he often says that he shouldn’t be attacking someone with such low poll numbers but he just can’t help himself.
“Obviously, Jeb Bush is getting under Donald Trump’s skin,” said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), who has endorsed Bush. “Jeb Bush has just consistently stood up to him and said: ‘Donald, what you’re saying is not right. It hurts the party but it’s just not right.’ ”
Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s campaign manager, said Bush must have chugged a Monster Energy drink before the debate because he suddenly had more fight in him. He described his boss as a natural fighter who won’t be pushed around.
“They just put up ads that are just so disingenuous, and I think it bothers Mr. Trump because he doesn’t run that kind of campaign,” Lewandowski said after the debate. “You’ve got a guy who has a super PAC that has gone out and raised over $100 million, attacking Trump all the time. And then Jeb tries to be the happy warrior when he has his super PAC doing all of his dirty work for him. And I think it’s very disingenuous.”
During the fight about who is weaker, Trump called Bush out for criticizing his “bad language” on the campaign trail when Bush himself has said some questionable things.
“Two days ago he said he would take his pants off and moon everybody, and that’s fine. Nobody reports that,” Trump said. “He gets up and says that, and then he tells me: ‘Oh, my language was a little bit rough . . .’ My language. Give me a break.”
Bush shook his head as a moderator tried to break up the fight.
“Just for the record,” Bush said. “Make sure my mother’s listening — if she’s watching the debate — I didn’t say that I was going to moon somebody.”
Another moderator tried to jump in, with no luck.
“You did say it! You did say it!” Trump said, referring to a Boston Globe article in which Bush said he could moon the crowd and the media still wouldn’t cover him.
As the debate continued, so did the insults hurled between Trump and Bush over the head of Cruz, who was stationed in between them and who could pose a greater threat to Trump in South Carolina. At one point, a moderator asked Trump whether he ever allows anyone to tell him that he’s wrong. His wife does all the time, he joked. When pushed for a real answer, he shifted into another Bush attack — an area where he’s much more comfortable.
“In New Hampshire, I spent $3 million,” Trump said. “Jeb Bush spent $44 million. He came in five, and I came in No. 1. That’s what the country needs, folks.”