GREENVILLE, S.C. — The sudden death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia on Saturday raised the stakes of the presidential election, with GOP contenders agreeing at a debate a few hours after news of his passing broke that President Barack Obama doesn’t deserve a pick to replace him.
Otherwise, the debate, hosted by CBS News and taking place a week before the South Carolina Republican primary, was a rock-and-rolling raucous affair at a theater complex here named, improbably for the occasion, the Peace Center.
With every poll putting billionaire businessman and reality show star Donald Trump ahead — the more pronounced fight here is for second and third place. In a departure from previous debates. Democrats Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders were mainly left alone.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., called Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, a liar.
Trump upped it when he called Cruz the “single biggest liar.”
Cruz said Trump was “very, very liberal,” which in this primary is worse than being a liar.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush came on strong against Trump.
Trump bashed his brother, former President George W. Bush.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich, by design, stayed above the fray.
Retired surgeon Ben Carson, whose campaign is waning, did little to change his course in this, the ninth debate so far, coming as the GOP field narrowed to six this week.
Minutes before the debate started, Obama announced he intended to nominate a successor to Scalia, a vow coming after a flurry of GOP statements saying the next president should get that chance.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who has the power to block a confirmation vote, said in a statement, “this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new president.”
RELATED STORIES: Who will Obama nominate to replace Scalia? Scalia’s death in office a rarity for modern Supreme Court Scalia’s death means loss of key vote in divided cases Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia dead at 79
Trump said he presumed Obama was going to send a nominee to the Senate. “I think it’s up to Mitch McConnell and everybody else to stop it. It’s called delay, delay, delay,” Trump said.
Kasich lamented the velocity of the instant escalation of the battle to replace Scalia, saying he wished “we had not run so fast into politics,” while urging the president not to go forward.
Moving on to national security, Trump and Bush clashed over subjects important to the large Republican-oriented military vote in this state, with exchanges that were increasingly personal. Bush ripped Trump from getting his foreign policy advice from “the shows.”
Trump earned audience boos when he blamed the 9-11 attacks on George W. Bush – who with wife, Laura, will headline a rally Monday in North Charleston for his younger brother.
It got so heated at times that Kasich said, “This is just nuts.”
The death of Scalia, the court’s leading conservative, instantly injected into the presidential race the likelihood that the next president — not Obama, with less than a year left in office — will be picking his replacement. The court usually broke to the right on 5-4 votes. If Obama gets a pick with less than a year left in office, the balance switches.
Before the debate, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who folded his presidential bid and is backing Jeb Bush, told me the presidential GOP dynamic changed with Scalia’s death.
“It will make people think about electability,” said Graham, who has been one of Trump’s most outspoken critics.
Presidential politics are now focused on the Feb. 20 votes, when South Carolina has a GOP primary, and Nevada holds a Democratic caucus. The Nevada Republican vote is Feb. 23, and the Democratic South Carolina primary is Feb. 27.
The fights for the presidential nominations in South Carolina are taking place across a political landscape that differs from the states where the first two presidential votes were cast: overwhelmingly white Iowa and New Hampshire.
South Carolina is far more diverse.
On the Democratic side, Sanders and Clinton are doing massive outreach to South Carolina’s large African-American population, while Republicans are mining the big evangelical, conservative and military populations.
Before the debate, I asked Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., a former South Carolina governor, what is motivating the GOP voters in his state, and he said a “wave of economic populism” is driving the Trump and the Sanders campaigns.
Given that Trump’s South Carolina win seems likely, “the more interesting contrast is between” Bush and Rubio, Sanford said. “It’ a cage match. Only one guy is walking out.”
Follow Lynn Sweet on Twitter: @LynnSweet