The Republican presidential race has erupted into an unusually personal, vicious grudge match between candidates who clearly can’t stand one another, feuds that seriously threaten party prospects this fall.
While Saturday’s debate insults and outbursts are hardly unique to political discourse, what’s different is the nasty tone, hostile undercurrents and the inability of moderator John Dickerson to control the brawling candidates.
“Hold on gentlemen,” he said at one point as Donald Trump and Ted Cruz slugged it out. “I’m going to turn this car around.”
The image of candidates as children in a back seat dogfight was hardly one Republicans want as they seek the most powerful office in the world.
Nor are they likely to savor Gov. John Kasich of Ohio’s take when he finally got a word in. “This is just nuts, okay? Jeez, oh, man. I’m sorry, John,” he said.
The debate spotlighted two evils Republicans confront as the campaign unfolds: More voter alienation, and less party unity.
If the candidates’ own devoted fans relish the broadsides against anyone else, the broader electorate has sent strong signals they’re tired of Washington in-fighting that stalls meaningful legislation. They want politicians who are reasoned, collegial and presidential.
88%Percentage of New Hampshire Republicans dissatisfied or angry with the way the federal government is working, according to network exit polls
“Republicans, Democrats, they’re not doing anything. I want them to come together,” said Adrian Missana, a mechanical engineer from Simpsonville, South Carolina.
While overnight polling indicates Trump is likely to retain his following, which appreciates his candor and outrage, his rhetoric raises doubts in the minds of others about his temperament and judgment.
“If Trump is in there, we will be in a war we can’t get out of that will inevitably change this country,” said Phil Wilkins, a dentist from Winnsboro, South Carolina.
Saturday’s tone appears to be “the type of rhetoric that actually brings out Trump’s voters in the primaries,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute in New Jersey.
The campaign always turns nastier between New Hampshire and South Carolina as the field gets winnowed down
Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute
But, he said, “I don’t think there are enough angry independents to keep this type of momentum going into the general election.”
The debate also raised new questions whether real estate mogul Trump; Cruz, a senator from Texas; Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor, can ever shake hands and come out embracing.
The stakes are huge. While Republicans are expected to retain control of the House of Representatives this fall, they’re defending 24 Senate seats to the Democrats’ 10. Seven of those GOP seats are in states President Barack Obama carried in 2012, and six are viewed as possible Democratic pickups. Democrats need to win five seats for Senate control, four if they win the White House.
It’s hardly uncommon for party rivals to disagree and turn negative. But to be called a liar repeatedly, or have your family belittled on national television is another matter.
This is a man who insults his way to the nomination
Jeb Bush, talking about Donald Trump at Saturday’s debate
How could Bush campaign for Trump after the charges that George W. Bush didn’t keep the country safe on 9/11 and blundered into the Iraq war?
How would Trump explain his repeated attacks on Cruz , including, “You probably are worse than Jeb Bush. You are the single biggest liar.”
Could Cruz explain his denunciation of Trump as a closet liberal?
Or would Rubio’s jab at Cruz’s inability to speak Spanish become a favorite Democratic taunt?
Feuds are an election ritual. In 2000, George W. Bush so enraged John McCain, who had thrashed him in the New Hampshire primary, that McCain ultimately offered only a tepid endorsement when it was apparent he lost. Bob Dole in 1988 told George H. W. Bush on national television to “stop lying about my record.” Mitt Romney four years ago branded rival Newt Gingrich a “failed leader.”
Yet through all that, few in the party doubted that the rifts would heal by fall, and they did.
This year, there’s no such confidence. A big reason is Trump, running for office for the first time and waging a highly unconventional campaign.
Dole, Gingrich, McCain and other runners-up were well-known political figures who party regulars knew and trusted. Not Trump. And not Cruz, a senator from Texas for about four years who proudly touts his refusal to go along with his own party in the Senate. Bush, of course, is a party stalwart, but his clear resentment for Trump suggests he wouldn’t campaign hard this fall for him.
It’s all a recipe to turn off already frustrated voters – and keep non-voters tuned out. No matter whose political rally one attends, the mood is the same: People want solutions and vision.
That could benefit Kasich. Judy Surak, a nurse from Clemson, appreciated his more gentle, collegial style. “He seems conscious of the people around him,” she said.
Ironically, that allows Kasich to sum up the party’s challenge. “I think we’re fixing to lose the election to Hillary Clinton if we don’t stop this,” Kasich said.