GREENVILLE, S.C. — In a few boisterous minutes, the Republican presidential race was crystallized around the question that has been asked for months: Can anyone stop Donald Trump, or will the New York billionaire bulldoze the party elites with tough talk and a no-quarter antiestablishment message that has allowed him to dominate the GOP race for months?
Rarely has the division between Trump and party elites been more apparent than it was on the debate stage Saturday night at the Peace Center here. Refusing to bow to party orthodoxy or even politeness, Trump trashed one of the most revered families in Republican politics and made a big political bet that standing his ground is better than backing down, no matter how much he is under fire.
Drawing boos from an audience that appeared stacked with supporters of his rivals and fans of the Bush family, Trump did not flinch. But whether he will be punished or rewarded by voters here in next weekend’s primary was the unanswerable question.
Over the objections of former Florida governor Jeb Bush, who issued a sharp defense of his brother, former president George W. Bush, Trump pressed his case that the war in Iraq was a disaster for the United States and for the Middle East.
But there was more. He criticized Chief Justice John Roberts, defended eminent domain and staked out other positions contrary to what many conservatives hold dear.
This was by far the rowdiest of any of the GOP debates, with Trump accusing Texas Sen. Ted Cruz of being a liar and with Cruz and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida tangling again over immigration. The action became so heated that Ohio Gov. John Kasich called for an end to hostilities lest the party risk losing the general election to the Democrats in November.
Kasich’s words held little appeal on a night when so many candidates had so much at stake, but what was most striking was the degree to which Trump, who sometimes has stepped back a bit as others squabbled, turned hostile and aggressive. He held special enmity for Bush, who has staked his candidacy in part on his attacks on the front-runner as a man trying to insult his way to the White House.
The debate came just a week before a critical primary in a critical state and just two days before the former president arrives here to campaign on behalf of his brother, who badly needs a strong finish in South Carolina to keep his candidacy alive. Trump’s decision to go straight at Bush on the Iraq War — and on the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks — raised the stakes for that appearance and for the outcome here next weekend.
One big question for Republican voters is whether they are prepared to overlook or play down questions about whether Trump is sufficiently conservative for a party that has moved further to the right during President Obama’s administration.
His views on some domestic issues have already put him at odds with hard-line conservatives, and on Saturday he decided to highlight as never before his differences with many in the party over the decision to invade Iraq. And on the day that Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died, Cruz warned that Trump would not nominate conservative justices to the high court as president.
The exchange over Iraq, which came in the opening hour of the debate, proved to be one of the most contentious and tension producing of any in the campaign. With insults and sarcasm, Trump flayed a family that has produced two GOP presidents and whose members are still among the most admired people in the Republican Party.
Trump didn’t just disagree with the decision to go to war in Iraq — a long-standing view that he has enunciated many times. This time he made it personal, accusing Bush of lying about the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq as the pretext for the 2003 invasion. “They lied,” he said over catcalls from the audience and protests from Bush, who said he was “sick and tired” of Trump “going after my family.”
The debate put the issues facing Republican voters front and center: What kind of candidate do they want to lead them? Trump has proven his ability to rally at least a portion of the Republican electorate, but whether he commands enough support to win the nomination hasn’t been answered after just one primary and one caucus.
The next seven days are likely to see some of the most intensive and negative campaigning so far in the Republican race, with several of the remaining candidates battling for political survival.
South Carolina has earned a reputation for picking winners, which heightens the stakes here this week. The surprise victory by former House speaker Newt Gingrich in 2012 was a rare departure in an otherwise unblemished record since 1980 of South Carolina Republicans foreshadowing the outcome of the GOP nomination contest with their primary.
As the first state in the South to hold a primary, South Carolina also serves as a gateway to later contests across a region that has become the home base for the modern Republican Party. That too gives South Carolina special prominence as a key test in the early calendar.
Republican candidates will make a brief detour to Nevada for caucuses on Feb. 23, but for the most part they are pointing to the big round of contests on Super Tuesday on March 1. On that day, 11 states — seven in the South or Southwest — hold primaries or caucuses. A total of 595 delegates will be at stake, more than four times the combined number of delegates at stake in the first four states.
South Carolina’s standing as the first-in-the-South was designed to be the protector of the candidate of the Republican establishment against a surprise rival and over the years the eventual nominees have used the primary to put themselves on track to the nomination.
This year, however, South Carolina could play a different role. If Trump prevails, the Palmetto State could provide a crucial boost to the antiestablishment insurgent battling a badly fractured party establishment. Victory here would not make Trump unstoppable, but it would heighten the pressure for anti-Trump Republicans to coalesce around one of the three establishment candidates still in the race.
Trump has led the polls here since last summer, shortly after he formally announced his candidacy. The Real Clear Politics poll average currently shows Trump with the support of about 36 percent of GOP voters here — roughly double that of Cruz, his nearest rival. The only other candidates with an average in double digits are Rubio and Bush.
Trump’s current strength here serves as a warning to other candidates and to those in the GOP establishment who worry about the consequences for the party if he were to become the nominee. After his double-digit victory in New Hampshire last Tuesday, the New York developer would gain valuable momentum with another sizable win here.
Cruz won the Iowa caucuses on the strength of his support among evangelical Christians and has long been pointing to South Carolina and the Super Tuesday contests in the South as his moment to break away from his rivals.
Kasich conceded South Carolina almost immediately after his second-place finish in New Hampshire. He has arrived here with some momentum and is eager to win some delegates by attracting votes along the seacoast. For Bush and Rubio, the stakes could not be higher. Each stands in the way of the other and it’s not likely either can survive a disappointing finish for too long.
Until the competition among the three candidates who are seeking to consolidate mainstream conservatives is clarified, however, the dynamic of the race will continue to favor the outsiders. But with his performance on Saturday, Trump has raised the stakes for everyone, and no one more than himself.