Fresh from being branded a “liar” by Donald Trump during the Republicans’ most bilious debate so far, former President George W Bush will today hit the campaign trail on behalf of his brother, Jeb Bush, who faces a live-or-die vote in the coming South Carolina primary.
With only six Republicans still standing in the White House race, a debate in Greenville, South Carolina, fairly oozed with personal animus, as Mr Trump sought to pummel first Mr Bush and then Senator Ted Cruz of Texas. The intensity of the exchanges on Saturday night reflected the high stakes for all the candidates with the South Carolina vote now five days away.
“This is nuts!” the Ohio Governor John Kasich, a moderate who took second place in New Hampshire last week, exclaimed at one point as Mr Trump came under repeated fusillades from the rest of the field. “We are fixing to lose the election to Hillary Clinton if we don’t stop this.”
Mr Bush, once expected to be the Republican front-runner, has managed only sixth and fourth place in Iowa and New Hampshire respectively, and has begun to bring members of his famous family on to the stump with him in an effort to climb higher. Mr Trump, who currently leads in South Carolina, sought to make an issue of it, and assailed Mr Bush’s elder brother for starting the Iraq war.
“Obviously, the war in Iraq was a big, fat mistake, all right?” said Mr Trump, who once called for the impeachment of George W Bush when he was still President.
“They lied. They said there were weapons of mass destruction. There were none, and they knew there were none.” He went on: “George Bush made the mistake. We can make mistakes, but that one was a beauty.”
Mr Bush, the former Governor of Florida, appeared to have been steeled for such an attack and showed no hesitation in striking right back. “I am sick and tired of him going after my family,” he forcefully declared.
“My dad is the greatest man alive, in my mind. While Donald Trump was building a reality TV show, my brother was building a security apparatus to keep us safe, and I’m proud of what he did.”
He also denounced Mr Trump for “having the gall” similarly to question why his mother, Barbara Bush, had come out in New Hampshire to help him.
While the field has now become smaller, the race for the Republican nomination remains a box of fireworks, dangerous to handle, and shows no indication of what the climax will look like. If Mr Trump wins solidly in South Carolina, there is no telling whether any of his rivals will be able to stop him.
If the property tycoon’s closest rival is still Senator Cruz – they have won one state each, New Hampshire and Iowa respectively – neither of them has the affection of the Republican establishment. But there is still no determining whether any of the remaining candidates – Messr Bush and Kasich, and Senator Marco Rubio of Florida – can still gain the momentum needed to displace them. Dr Ben Carson is still competing, but it’s not clear why and he barely made his voice heard in Saturday’s debate.
More assured than during the previous debate in New Hampshire, Mr Rubio attempted to repel attacks from Senator Cruz, who accused him of taking a more moderate stance on immigration, one of the most divisive issues in the race, when addressing supporters on Spanish language television.
“I don’t know how he knows what I said on Univision – he doesn’t speak Spanish,” Mr Rubio shot back.
And Mr Rubio also came to the defence of former President George Bush. “I think you can look back in hindsight and say a couple of things, but he kept us safe,” Mr Rubio attempted.
Mr Trump would have nothing of that. “The World Trade Centre came down during the reign of George Bush. He kept us safe? That is not safe. That is not safe, Marco. That is not safe.”
When he wasn’t assailing the former Florida Governor, Mr Trump was trying to strip the glow from Mr Cruz, calling him the “single biggest liar on the stage” and a “nasty guy”, a reference to the Texan’s reputation as the least-liked member of the US Senate on Capitol Hill.
While the evangelicals who boosted Mr Cruz to first place in Iowa may not be quite so numerous in South Carolina, they do represent a strong voice in the state, arguably making him the most important threat to Mr Trump next weekend. The sudden death on Saturday of Justice Antonin Scalia, the most conservative and longest-serving member of the US Supreme Court, may help Mr Cruz as the fight over who should replace him galvanises conservatives.