In the last Republican Primary Debate before voters in South Carolina head to the polls, Donald Trump truly outdid himself. The brash real estate mogul and serial entertainer was everything he usually is and more. That is to say, he was rude, loud, insulting, and defiant: more so than usual, which is really saying something. The question going into South Carolina next Saturday will be, did he go too far?
Trump’s personality and penchant for being politically incorrect is undoubtedly the number one reason he is the front runner in the Republican field. It might also be the reason that he’s the LEAST popular with Independents and Democrats and very unlikely to be able to win in a General Election, but I digress.
Trump has defied traditional political wisdom throughout this campaign by attacking minorities, women, Prisoners of War, and several other groups with insults and profanity that would normally sink a candidate’s aspirations to the Oval Office. And yet, so far, every media scandal he’s had has failed to damage his popularity with his supporters. Trump himself even bragged that he could stand in the middle of fifth avenue and “shoot somebody” and he wouldn’t loose any voters.
But in the CBSN Debate he may finally have found an issue on which voters truly will punish him: 9/11. After Jeb Bush defended his brother’s legacy on the Iraq war with his regular line about how George W. Bush ‘kept us safe’ Donald Trump responded with this:
TRUMP: The World Trade Center came down during your brother’s reign, remember that.
Trump has actually said this once before, in a prior debate, but this time he really doubled down on BLAMING George W. Bush for the attack on 9/11. When Rubio also jumped in to defend the Bush legacy, Trump responded forcefully:
RUBIO: I just want to say, at least on behalf of me and my family, I thank God all the time it was George W. Bush in the White House on 9/11 and not Al Gore… he kept us safe, and I am forever grateful to what he did for this country.
TRUMP: How did he keep us safe when the World Trade Center — the World — excuse me. I lost hundreds of friends. The World Trade Center came down during the reign of George Bush. He kept us safe? That is not safe. That is not safe, Marco. That is not safe.
RUBIO: The World Trade Center came down because Bill Clinton didn’t kill Osama bin Laden when he had the chance to kill him.
(APPLAUSE) TRUMP: And George Bush– by the way, George Bush had the chance, also, and he didn’t listen to the advice of his CIA.
While Trump was absolutely right in criticizing the Bush decision to invade Iraq, he likely overstepped with Republicans by claiming Bush lied about the Weapons of Mass Destruction and certainly overstepped in blaming Bush for the most significant terrorist attack in modern history, which occurred less than a year after Bush assumed the office of the presidency.
Worse still for Trump, George W. Bush is very popular in South Carolina.
Trump also called Ted Cruz “the biggest liar”, just ahead of Jeb Bush, but that’s much more his usual type of insult.
The rest of the debate did not go much better for Trump. He seemed unable to explain any details of any policy, except perhaps when he stood to the Left of Hilary Clinton by arguing that entitlements should be increased, not cut. He defended Vladimir Putin and got hammered for his defense of eminent domain, his support of partial birth abortions and Planned Parenthood, and his history of support for Democrats.
The night was so bad for Donald Trump, it may prove to sink him in South Carolina much like Marco Rubio’s robotic debate performance hurt him going into New Hampshire. The likely beneficiary is Ted Cruz, who is currently second in the Real Clear Politics average of polls.
But if a night like that doesn’t deter Trump supporters, it’s unlikely anything will. At that point, the only way he will lose is if several other Republicans drop out and consolidate the vote. Remember, Trump may have a plurality of voters right now, about 30%, but that could all change if the other 70% weren’t split between 5 candidates.