Debate takeaways: Civil court discussion gives way to fighting

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The remaining Republican U.S. presidential candidates, (L-R) Governor John Kasich, former Governor Jeb Bush, Senator Ted Cruz, businessman Donald Trump, Senator Marco Rubio and Dr. Ben Carson pose before the start of the Republican U.S. presidential candidates debate sponsored by CBS News and the Republican National Committee in Greenville, South Carolina February 13, 2016. Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

The remaining Republican U.S. presidential candidates, (L-R) Governor John Kasich, former Governor Jeb Bush, Senator Ted Cruz, businessman Donald Trump, Senator Marco Rubio and Dr. Ben Carson pose before the start of the Republican U.S. presidential candidates debate sponsored by CBS News and the Republican National Committee in Greenville, South Carolina February 13, 2016. Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

WASHINGTON — 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.

COURT POLITICS

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 v. BUSH

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.”

CRUZ v. RUBIO

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. But his answer was heavily accented, making it hard to understand — even for bilingual listeners.

TRUMP v. CRUZ

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.”

KASICH THE OPTIMIST

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.

CARSON CHIMES IN

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.

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