GOP debate: Supreme Court discussion gives way to brawl

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The open spot on the U.S. Supreme Court was one of the topics the GOP candidates addressed Saturday.

Saturday's Republican presidential debate was the perfect spot for GOP candidates to try and project legal gravitas after the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.

That was a fairly civil discussion.

Then came the brawls:

First, Donald Trump and Jeb Bush went after each other. Then Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio got into their own shouting match, which even devolved into barbs about who can speak Spanish.

Then it was back to Trump v. Bush for Round Two. Next up: Trump v. Cruz.

John Kasich tried to stand above the fray.

It was the smallest GOP field on the debate stage yet, after the departures of Chris Christie and Carly Fiorina. But the six surviving candidates filled the void - and then some.


No surprise here: Most of the Republicans on the stage said it should be up to the next president (i.e. one of them, they hope) to fill the vacancy created by Scalia's death.

Bush, the son and brother of a president, was the outlier here. "The president, by the way, has every right to nominate Supreme Court justices," Bush said. He added that President Barack Obama should take a "consensus orientation" toward that nomination, but added: "There's no doubt in my mind that Barack Obama will not have a consensus pick when he submits that person to the Senate."

The two lawyers and the only senators in the group - Rubio and Cruz -both said Obama should leave the selection to the new president.

It was a perfect forum for Cruz, who has argued nine cases before the Supreme Court, to show off his legal credentials. He made it a point to mention he'd known Scalia for 20 years.

Trump was back in attack mode toward Bush, repeatedly saying "Jeb is so wrong" on national security and more, and laying into former President George W. Bush for failing to keep the nation safe from the 9/11 terror attacks.

Bush, revived by a stronger-than-expected showing in New Hampshire, showed more spark than he had in past debates.

He said he could care less about Trump's endless insults but declared himself "sick and tired of him going after my family."

"While Donald Trump was building a reality TV show, my brother was building a security apparatus to keep us safe," Bush said. He also faulted the billionaire for having "the gall to go after my mother."

Trump shot back: "She should be running."

The audience got into the mix, too, with plenty of heckles and boos for Trump.

Trump dismissed that as nothing but "Jeb's special interests and lobbyists talking."


In a lull from the Trump theatrics, Cruz and Rubio got into their own fistfight. The two senators each found reason to find weakness in the other's record on illegal immigration.

Cruz was the initial aggressor, saying Rubio had backed a "massive amnesty plan" in the Senate for those living in the country illegally.

Rubio, trying to recover after a disastrous debate performance in New Hampshire, countered that Cruz had shown his own moments of weakness on illegal immigration, adding, "he either wasn't the telling the truth then or he wasn't telling the truth now."

The heated exchange between two Cuban-American candidates quickly devolved in a spat over their Spanish language skills. When Rubio observed that Cruz "doesn't speak Spanish," Cruz offered up a few words in the language.


The two candidates with victories so far - Trump in New Hampshire and Cruz in Iowa - have been engaged in an increasingly bitter duel in recent days and they took it to a new level Saturday.

Cruz began the round by questioning Trump's conservative credentials, saying "For most of his life, his policies have been very, very liberal."

That set Trump off: "You are the single biggest liar," he said, "you probably are worse than Jeb Bush."

"This guy will say anything," Trump continued. "He's a nasty guy."

There was much shouting over one another, and boos from the audience, prompting one of the debate moderators to observed, "Gentlemen, we are in danger of driving this into the dirt."


The Ohio governor, hoping to build on his surprise second-place finish in New Hampshire, tried to present himself as the voice of reason and positivity.

At one lull in the slugfest, he declared: "This is just crazy. This is just nuts. Geez, oh man."

"I think we're fixing to lose the election to Hillary Clinton if we don't stop this," he said.


Ben Carson, who's been lagging in the polls and struggling to get into the conversation, was happy just to have a more prominent turn at the mic.

When he got a second question 20 minutes into the debate, it was cause for celebration.

"Two questions already, this is great!" he said.


The Republican presidential debaters misfired in assertions about Supreme Court nominees, Syria, immigration and more.

A look at some of the claims Saturday night and how they compare with the facts:

TED CRUZ: "We have 80 years of precedent of not confirming Supreme Court justices in an election year."

MARCO RUBIO: "It has been over 80 years since a lame-duck president has appointed a Supreme Court justice."

THE FACTS: Cruz is wrong. Rubio is in the ballpark.

Anthony Kennedy was confirmed by the Senate on Feb. 3, 1988, in the final year of Ronald Reagan's presidency, by a 97-0 vote. That was a presidential election year.

Presidents don't appoint justices to the high court; they nominate them for Senate confirmation. Kennedy was nominated in 1987 and confirmed the next year. That makes Rubio closer to correct.

Rubio and other Republicans argued that President Barack Obama, as a lame duck, should not fill the vacancy created by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia but leave it to the next president - which they hope will be one of them.

But the example of Kennedy, who is still on the court, shows that presidents in their last year aren't always powerless in shaping the court - and not shy about trying.


JEB BUSH: "Russia is not taking out ISIS. They're attacking our team."

DONALD TRUMP: "Jeb is so wrong. You've got to fight ISIS first. ... We've been in the Middle East for 15 years, and we haven't won anything. We've spent $5 trillion in the Middle East."

THE FACTS: Both spoke with too broad a brush. Russia is bombing both the Islamic State group and Western-backed rebels. But the U.S. and its partners say the majority of Russia's strikes haven't targeted IS fighters, and that its most recent offensive near Aleppo is primarily hitting "moderate" opposition forces.

As with most things in Syria, however, the picture is unclear because some of the moderates are fighting alongside other extremist groups, like the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front.

Trump's figure for total U.S. expenditures in the Middle East, though, appears significantly inflated. In November, Trump cited a $2 trillion figure. That number roughly matches the amount of money the U.S. spent fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq between 2001 and 2015, according to the bipartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.


CRUZ on a failed 2013 immigration overhaul: "I stood with (Sen.) Jeff Sessions and (Rep.) Steven King and the American people to defeat that amnesty plan. The question for anyone on illegal immigration is, where were you in that fight?"

RUBIO: "When that issue was being debated, Ted Cruz at a committee hearing very passionately said, 'I want immigration reform to pass, I want people to be able to come out of the shadows.' He proposed an amendment that would have legalized people here. ... So he either wasn't telling the truth then, or he isn't telling the truth now."

THE FACTS: Rubio's account is mostly right. While Cruz has been against an explicit path to citizenship for people in the country illegally, he did introduce legislation in that 2013 bill that proposed eventual legal status for millions of people. He also publicly supported the legislation in the Senate and urged its passing.

He has since said his amendment was designed to help kill the broader bill. The immigration bill co-authored by Rubio failed to pass in the House.


RUBIO: "Our economy is flat, it's not creating jobs the way it once did."

THE FACTS: While the recovery after the Great Recession has at times been sluggish, in the past two years job creation has been healthy. In 2014, employers added 3.1 million jobs, the most in 15 years. Job creation slowed to 2.7 million last year - still, the second-most since 1999.


CRUZ: "The nonpartisan Tax Foundation estimated (my) simple flat tax that would produce 4.9 million new jobs, it would increase capital investment by 44 percent and would lift everyone's income by double digits."

THE FACTS: That's a selective reading of the foundation's analysis, which found that his plan would reduce tax revenues by $3.6 trillion over 10 years, requiring massive spending cuts or hugely increasing federal budget deficits.

The right-leaning group did conclude that the plan would generate more jobs and growth. It assumed that the tax cuts would generate significant additional economic growth and therefore more revenue, an approach that not all economists agree with.

But even taking that potential extra revenue into account, the foundation still concludes Cruz's plan would lower revenue by $768 billion over the next 10 years.


BEN CARSON: "When we have a debt of that nature, it causes the Fed to change their policy. It causes the central bank to keep the rates low, and who does that affect? Mr. Average, who used to go to the bank every Friday and put part of his check in the bank and watch it grow over three decades and be able to retire with a nice nest egg."

THE FACTS: Carson misreads how the Federal Reserve works.

The size of the U.S. government's debt, which is about $19 trillion, does not influence the Federal Reserve's interest rate policies. The Fed seeks to keep unemployment low and inflation at about 2 percent a year.

Former Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke cut the short-term interest rate the Fed controls to nearly zero in December 2008 - before Barack Obama took office - and kept it that way for seven years.

It is true that the policy has significantly lowered the interest rates on bank savings accounts, but many savers have benefited in other ways. The S&P 500 stock market index nearly tripled from March 2009, when the market bottomed during the Great Recession, through the end of 2015.

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