The shocking news of Justice Antonin Scalia's death cast a pall over the South Carolina GOP debate. But not even the death of a Supreme Court justice was enough to derail the political bloodletting. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., came into the debate needing a comeback. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, came in on defense, and Donald Trump came in with the wind at his back while Jeb Bush emerged from New Hampshire still alive. Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Dr. Ben Carson came in with low expectations in a state in which neither is expected to break out of single digits.
Jeb Bush had his best, most relaxed debate. He managed to get under Donald Trump's skin, reducing Trump to blaming George W. Bush for 9/11. "The lack of leadership in this country by Barack Obama, John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, thinking that this is a policy that works, this policy of containment with ISIS. It's a complete, unmitigated disaster," he said. "And to allow Russia now to have influence in Syria makes it harder, but we need to destroy ISIS and dispose of Assad to create a stable Syria so that the four million refugees aren't a breeding ground for Islamic jihadists. This is the problem. Donald Trump brought up the fact that he would - he'd want to accommodate Russia. Russia is not taking out ISIS." Later he went after Trump, calling him "weak" for disparaging women, Hispanics and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
While some Wall Street Republicans oppose it, Bush made a compelling case for treating carried interest as ordinary income. He struck gold when he slammed eminent domain when used to take an old woman's home for a parking lot for "failed casinos for high rollers." At one point, he compared Trump to Reagan: "Reagan did not tear down people like Donald Trump. He tore down the Berlin Wall." Later in the evening he made an effective and articulate defense of executive leadership, ignoring Trump, who tried to insist he never went bankrupt. He chopped Kasich down to size for expanding Obamacare (i.e. expanding Medicaid under the law): "We should be fighting Obamacare, repealing Obamacare, replacing it with something totally different."
Rubio also had a strong comeback debate. He ably defended his child tax credit, making the night's only pitch to shore up families. ("Parenting is the most important job any of us will ever have. Family formation is the most important thing in society. So what my tax plan does, is it does create - especially for working families, an additional Child Tax Credit.") His shining moment however came when he reeled off the list of Cruz's "lies" - reversing himself on immigration, telling Iowa voters Carson had dropped out of the race, and insisting Rubio didn't fight against Planned Parenthood funding. In essence, it was his Chis Christie moment, leaving Cruz back on his heels. He went a long way toward debunking the false narrative that he is robotic. He was at ease in explaining his immigration plans, stressing his emphasis on border security first. In his closing argument he came back to values again, observing, "Wrong is now considered right, and right is now considered wrong."
More surprising was Ted Cruz's performance. He came out strong in his tribute to Scalia, but was unconvincing in insisting his Value Added Tax is not really a VAT. He launched a broad-based attack on Rubio's immigration policy, but clumsily tried to avoid answering whether he would expel the hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants idenified by the president's executive order. He seemed flummoxed when Rubio delineated his "lies." For much of the debate he was quiet, letting Bush and Rubio shine.
Kasich seemed to be the robotic candidate, repeating over and over his intention to be a unifier and healer. Too often he came across as if legitimate criticisms of his political positions are out of bounds.
Dr. Ben Carson, as always, seemed out of place in a presidential debate. Winners: Bush, Rubio, CBS moderators (for informed, well formulated questions)
Losers: Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, John Kasich