Republican presidential candidates jousted over immigration and foreign policy in a raucous debate that was overshadowed by the death of US Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia just hours before they took the stage.
Scalia’s death thrust the future of the court into the centre of a heated presidential campaign. In their debate on Saturday night, the Republican candidates insisted that President Barack Obama step aside and let his successor nominate Scalia’s replacement instead, The White House vigorously opposed the suggestion.
Among the contenders, only Jeb Bush said Obama had “every right” to nominate a justice during his final year in office. The former Florida governor said the presidency must be a strong office – although he added that he didn’t expect Obama to pick a candidate who could win consensus support.
The five other candidates on the stage urged the Republican-led Senate to block any attempts by the president to get his third nominee on the court.
“It’s up to Mitch McConnell and everybody else to stop it,” Donald Trump said. “It’s called delay, delay, delay.”
Just six contenders took the debate stage in South Carolina, far from the long line of candidates who participated in earlier Republican events.
Yet the outcome remains deeply uncertain, with party elites still hoping that one of the more mainstream candidates will rise up to challenge Trump and Texas Senator Ted Cruz.
The debate began with a moment of silence for Scalia but devolved quickly into fighting between Trump and Bush, then between Trump and Cruz.
The exchanges highlighted the bad blood between the billionaire businessman and his rivals just a week before the pivotal primary in South Carolina, a state known for rough-and-tumble politics.
Trump, repeatedly interrupting his rivals, lashed out at Cruz after the Texas senator had challenged his conservative credentials, calling him the “single biggest liar” and a “nasty guy”.
The real-estate mogul also accused Bush of lying about Trump’s business record and said Bush’s brother – former president George W Bush – lied to the public about the Iraq war.
“Obviously, the war in Iraq was a big fat mistake,” Trump said.
Bush, who has been among the most aggressive Republican candidates in taking on Trump, said that while he didn’t mind the businessman criticising him – “It’s blood sport for him” – he was “sick and tired of him going after my family”.
Ohio governor John Kasich sought to inject the election’s high stakes into the discussion.
“I think we’re fixing to lose the election to Hillary Clinton if we don’t stop this,” he said.