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GOP Debate: Scalia's Vacancy; Trump Puts Jeb On The Defense


The Republican presidential candidates held their ninth debate last night. It was sponsored by CBS News, and it was the last debate before the South Carolina primary, which happens this coming weekend. And there were all kinds of fireworks on that stage last night - Bush versus Trump, Cruz versus Rubio, Bush versus Kasich. The candidates argued about everything from taxes, immigration, foreign policy, leadership and filling Antonin Scalia's Supreme Court vacancy. NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson was watching. She joins me now. Good morning, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: So let's start with the big news this weekend, Justice Scalia's passing and now the vacancy on the court. How did the candidates respond?

LIASSON: Well, the candidates all extolled Scalia as a conservative giant. They did differ on whether President Obama should nominate someone to replace him on the court, but they all agreed that if the president does that, which he says he will, the Senate should not confirm that nominee. They should leave it to the next president to choose Scalia's replacement.

MARTIN: We talked about all the clashes that happened on that stage last night. Which reverberated the loudest to your ear?

LIASSON: Well, the debate was a real free-for-all. It was a complete brawl, but the most intense exchanges were between Jeb Bush and Donald Trump. Jeb Bush has struggled for months to take on Trump without gaining much advantage for himself. But last night, he seems to have finally found his voice. Here's one of several of those exchanges where Trump was asked by CBS News moderator John Dickerson whether he stood by a previous statement he'd made that George W. Bush, Jeb's brother, should have been impeached because of the Iraq war.


DONALD TRUMP: George Bush made a mistake. We can make mistakes. But that one was a beauty. We should have never been in Iraq. We have destabilized the Middle East.

JOHN DICKERSON: So I'm going to - so you still think he should be impeached?

JEB BUSH: I think it's my turn.

TRUMP: You do whatever you want. You call it whatever you want. And I want to tell you they lied. They said there were weapons of mass destruction. There were none, and they knew there were none. There were no weapons of mass destruction.


LIASSON: So there you hear the audience booing. Bush responded by saying he was sick and tired of Barack Obama blaming his brother for all of the problems he's had, suggesting Donald Trump was doing the same thing.


BUSH: I am sick and tired of him going after my family. My dad is the greatest man alive in my mind.


BUSH: 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.


BUSH: And he's had the gall to go after...

TRUMP: ...The World Trade Center came down during your brother's reign. Remember that.


LIASSON: So Trump, for a change, seemed a little bit rattled. He took a lot more attacks from more candidates than in any other debate last night. And at one point, he was asked by the moderator about his use of profanity on the stump, and he said he wouldn't do it again. It was almost as if he was made to sit in the corner by the teacher. So a slightly contrite Trump is not something we've seen before.

MARTIN: Indeed. So former President Bush, George W., came up a lot. And he's campaigning in South Carolina tomorrow, right?

LIASSON: That's right. He's coming in to campaign for his brother. Bush is still very popular here. Jeb Bush knew he was on firm ground to invoke his brother. He also attacked Trump for saying John McCain was a loser for being captured in Vietnam. John McCain is also popular here in South Carolina, which has a lot of active duty military and retired military voters. So Bush has been unapologetic about bringing his family in to campaign. You know, his last name might be a liability in some parts of the country, but not here in South Carolina. It might even help him as he battles Rubio for third place.

MARTIN: OK, speaking of Rubio, he admitted he had kind of wilted under pressure in the last debate. How'd he do last night?

LIASSON: Well, he didn't fall on his face. No one attacked him the way Christie had in the last debate for being a lightweight. He held his own. He seemed a little bit diminished. It was almost as if his superpowers are gone. He did have this exchange with Senator Ted Cruz on immigration, which has been one of the biggest flashpoints in the Republican primary. Cruz said Marco Rubio has a long record of supporting amnesty.


TED CRUZ: In addition to that, Marco went on Univision in Spanish and said he would not rescind President Obama's illegal executive amnesty on his first day in office. I have promised to rescind every single illegal executive action, including that one. And on the question...


MARCO RUBIO: ...Well, first of all, I don't know how he knows what I said on Univision because he doesn't speak Spanish. And second of all, the other point that I would make...


CRUZ: (Speaking Spanish).

RUBIO: This is - look, this is a disturbing pattern now because for a number of weeks now, Ted Cruz has just been telling lies. He lied about Ben Carson in Iowa.


RUBIO: He lies about Planned Parenthood. He lies about marriage. He's lying about all sort of things.

LIASSON: So this is an argument that Rubio and Cruz have had before. But here, Rubio was a little more aggressive. But he did not take on Jeb Bush, who was battling him here for third place.

MARTIN: And just briefly - John Kasich, he made a comeback in New Hampshire. How did he do?

LIASSON: Well, he was his nonpartisan self. He talked about healing the divisions. As the other candidates were arguing, he said this is crazy, this is nuts. We're fixing to lose the election to Hillary Clinton if we don't stop this.

MARTIN: NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Thanks so much, Mara.

LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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