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Republican Candidates Square Off In Nastiest Debate Yet

BuzzFeed News correspondent McKay Coppins reports from the debate in Greenville, South Carolina.

Last updated on February 14, 2016, at 1:51 a.m. ET

Posted on February 13, 2016, at 6:01 a.m. ET

Spencer Platt / Getty Images

Here's a quick recap:

* The Republican presidential candidates squared off Saturday in South Carolina, a state known for dirty campaign politics, for the first time since Donald Trump's runaway win in the New Hampshire primaries.

* The candidates touted their conservative credentials, and sparred on topics ranging from immigration, foreign policy, 9/11, taxes, and Supreme Court nominations after the sudden death of justice Antonin Scalia.

* Jeb Bush was the only candidate to argue President Obama has "every right" to nominate a Supreme Court justice to replace Scalia during his final year in office.

* During several clashes, the candidates called one another a "liar," and took issue with each other's records. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio accused Texas Sen. Ted Cruz of not being able to speak Spanish, so Cruz fired back in Spanish.

* And in an awkward moment, Ben Carson closed out the night with a fake quote he attributed to Joseph Stalin.

* The next GOP primary will be held in South Carolina on Feb. 20.

The death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia dominated the first 15 minutes of the debate.

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Moderator John Dickerson, following a moment of silence, asked a round of questions focused on the looming Supreme Court fight.

 

The sudden death clearly took most of the candidates by surprise, and they all largely stuck to praising Scalia and broad talking points regarding the need to appoint conservative justices to the court.

 

"This is a tremendous blow to conservatism and a tremendous blow to our country," Donald Trump said, adding that while Obama has the right to nominate a justice, "I think it's up to Mitch McConnell and everybody else to stop it. It's called delay, delay, delay."

 

When asked if Obama has the authority to appoint a justice, Ben Carson — who recently wrote a book on the constitution — initially said, "Well the constitution doesn't actually address that particular situation." Article Two of the constitution provides the president to appoint justices with the advice and consent of the Senate.  Carson later clarified he understood that the president appoints justices, blaming his answer on the phrasing of the question.

 

John Kasich lamented the speed at which Scalia's death has turned into a political fight "It's not even two minutes after the death of judge Scalia," he said. "I wish we hadn't run so fast into politics."

 

"Now we're going to see another partisan fight take place. I really wish the president would think about not picking somebody," Kasich said. "I would like the president, for once here, to put the country first."

 

Meanwhile, Jeb Bush said that while he does not believe Obama will pick a consensus nominee, "the president has every right to nominate Supreme Court justices. I'm an Article Two guy … but in return for that, there should be a consensus orientation on that pick."

 

Sens. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz argued that there is an 80 year precedent of not nominating justices during an election year. When Dickerson pointed out that in 1988 the Senate confirmed Justice Anthony Kennedy — who'd been nominated the year before — it appeared to throw Cruz off.

"I just want to get the facts straight for the audience," Dickerson said, prompting boos from the audience.

 

The Texas senator quickly rebounded, praising Scalia and warning his death "underscores the stakes of this election. We are one justice away from a Supreme Court that will strike down every restriction on abortion in the United States … the Senate needs to stand strong and say we're not going to give up the U.S Supreme Court for a generation for Barack Obama to make one more appointee."

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On the topic of U.S. foreign policy, the candidates fiercely clashed, drawing loud cheers and jeers from the audience.

Bush and Trump sparred over Syria. "We're supporting troops that we don't even know who they are, Trump said. "We have no idea who they are."

Bush pushed back, questioning Trump's knowledge of international relations. "This is from a guy who gets his foreign policy from the shows," the former Florida governor said. "We're living in dangerous times. This is a man who insults his way to the nomination."

The topic sparked a sharp back and forth between Bush and Trump, who strongly disagreed with his plan.

"Jeb is so wrong," Trump said to boos from the audience. "We have to fight ISIS first," he insisted.

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Trump also attacked Bush for wavering on whether the Iraq war was a mistake when announcing his presidential bid and strongly criticized former President George W. Bush's decision to remove Saddam Hussein from power.

"They lied. They said there were weapons of mass destruction and they knew there were none," Trump said. "The World Trade Center came down during your brother's reign," Trump said to loud jeers from the audience.

Bush defended his family. "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," he said.

An extensive BuzzFeed News review was unable to find any Trump statements on the Iraq War before the invasion in March 2003, but did find two statements he made the week the war started, one calling it "a mess" and one saying it would have a positive impact on the stock market.

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Trump: "The World Trade Center came down during the reign of George Bush. He kept us safe? That is not safe."

On the topic of taxes, Rubio pushed back against criticisms that his child tax credit expansion plan is not in line with traditional conservative beliefs about not using tax policy to promote social agendas.

"I'm not influencing social policy. This is their money … it doesn't belong to the government," Rubio said, questioning the fairness of the current tax structure.

"This is what I don't understand. If a business takes their money and invests it in a piece of equipment, they get to write it off of their taxes. But if a parent takes money that they have earned through work, they don't? This makes not sense," Rubio argued. "Let me tell you, if you're a parent that struggling you know that $50 is the difference between a new pair of shoes this month or not getting a new pair of shoes for your kids."

In a particularly heated moment, Trump called Cruz "the single biggest liar" after the Texas senator questioned the billionaire's conservative credentials.

.@realDonaldTrump to @tedcruz: "You are the single biggest liar." https://t.co/VsDheVxG8V

And Bush went after Trump for "disparaging" hispanics, women, and the disabled. The billionaire fired back, calling out Bush's comment last week that he could take off his pants and "moon the whole crowd" and not capture the attention of news media.

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On the topic of immigration, Cruz and Rubio accused each other of not telling the truth, igniting a nasty exchange.

Asked whether he would use a list of undocumented persons living in the U.S. under President Obama's deferred action plan — something that conservatives have called for — Cruz dodged the question, opting instead to attack Rubio.

"When Harry Reid and Chuck Schumer and establishment Republicans were leading the fight to pass a massive amnesty plan, I stood with Jeff Sessions and Steve King and the American people and led the fight to defeat that amnesty plan, he said. "That moment was a time that Reagan would call a time for choosing." When Cruz referred to the legislation as "the Rubio Schumer amnesty plan," it prompted boos from the crowd, which Cruz quipped was a sign that it was "supported by the donor class," a dig at the makeup of the audience at the debate.

Cruz' attack drew an angry response from Rubio. "We're going to have to do this again?" The Florida senator said, before noting that during consideration of the immigration bill, Cruz made numerous statements in favor of passage of the legislation as part of his poison pill amendment strategy — which was, of course, intended to kill the bill.

"He either wasn't telling the truth then or he isn't telling the truth now," Rubio said, a comment that launched a particularly nasty back and forth between the two young lawmakers.

"Marco right now supports citizenship for 12 million people here illegally … [and] Marco went on Univision, in Spanish, and said he would not rescind president Obama's illegal executive amnesty on his first day in office," Cruz countered.

"I don't know how he knows what I said on Univision because he doesn't speak Spanish. Second of all … this is a disturbing pattern now. For a number of weeks now Ted Cruz has just been telling lies," Rubio charged.

The attacks clearly rattled Cruz, who struggled to respond, arguing "what he said is knowingly false … if you want to assess who's telling the truth. Look at [what] Jeff Sessions said."

Rubio: "First of all, I don't know how [Cruz] knows what I said on Univision because he doesn't speak Spanish."

And in closing arguments to South Carolina, all of the candidates attempted to showcase their conservative credentials.

In his closing statement, Kasich said no president can fix the country's problems alone. "The spirit of America doesn't come from the top down, the spirit of America rests in us," he said.

Carson closed saying the country was heading off a cliff and inadvertently went on to misquote a Soviet dictator. "Joseph Stalin said if you want to bring America down, you have to undermine three things: our spiritual life, our patriotism and our morality," Carson said.

But according to Snopes.com, the quote is apparently a fake.

Meanwhile, Bush touted his "steady hand" as governor, and said his experience equipped him to tackle any unforeseen challenges the next president is going to be confronted with. "We need someone with a servant's heart that has a backbone that isn't going to focus on polls and focus groups," he said. "The focus will be on the American people to keep them safe and secure."

Rubio focused on his socially conservative positions, including marriage only "between a man and a woman," his stance against abortion, and a strong alliance with Israel. "Our culture's in trouble," he said. "Wrong is considered right and right is considered wrong." The Florida senator said South Carolina Republicans can make 2016 "our turning point."

Cruz told voters the choice was between another "Washington dealmaker," or him, "a proven" conservative. "Do you want another Washington deal-maker who'll do business as usual, cut deals with the Democrats, grow government, grow debt and give up our fundamental liberties?" Cruz asked.

And Trump returned to his campaign slogan. "We're going to make our country great again," he said. "We don't win with healthcare, we don't win with ISIS and the military, we don't take care of our vets, we don't care of our borders, we don't win. We are going to start winning again."

Watch all of the closing statements here:

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More coverage from the South Carolina GOP debate:

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Complete coverage of the GOP race from BuzzFeed News:

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BuzzFeed News reporters Jon Passantino, Kendall Taggert, Leticia Miranda, and John Stanton contributed to this report.

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