Jeb Bush Learned to Fight in South Carolina

But one strong debate performance isn’t enough to stop Donald Trump.

Former Gov. Jeb Bush at the Republican U.S. presidential candidates debate sponsored by CBS News in Greenville, South Carolina, Feb. 13, 2016.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Jeb Bush’s impressive performance in Saturday night’s enjoyably manic Republican debate may very well help him land a third place showing, behind Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz, in South Carolina’s upcoming primary. Amidst sleepy performances from Gov. John Kasich, Ben Carson, Sen. Marco Rubio, and Cruz, Bush was considerably more aggressive during the CBS debate. He challenged Trump, defended his record, and made a strong national security pitch to voters in a state well-known for it’s pro-military views. Despite a handful of pointed exchanges, the other candidates largely ignored Trump. The problem that has bedeviled the party for months—essentially, that the candidates won’t unite to take down Trump—remains, and one impressive debate from Bush won’t solve it.

There was one moment during the debate that signaled that someone other than Bush may be aware of the problem. It occurred during the heated discussion of George W. Bush’s response to terrorism. After Bush put forth a spirited defense of his brother’s administration, Trump essentially blamed the former president for the Sept. 11 attacks. Jeb fired back, Trump lodged some insults, and the back-and-forth appeared to be reminiscent of previous debates, with Bush seeming more resolute.

And then, somewhat surprisingly, Rubio rose to the defense of George W. Bush, essentially helping make Jeb’s case. After months of bashing each other and letting Trump coast, Rubio and Bush focused their negative attention onto the man who is leading in the polls and favored to win the nomination. Rubio drew loud applause from the audience, and Trump seemed momentarily out of his element. But this was the only time that the candidates in any concerted way attacked Trump.

The businessman may have hurt himself by a performance that was, by any rational calculation, unhinged. But his own gaffes haven’t hurt him yet, and he probably needs to face tough questioning from his opponents. Despite the Bush exchange and a brief skirmish with Cruz, this never really happened. (After Cruz attacked him for being insufficient and inconsistent in his conservatism, Rubio had the chance to follow up; he ignored Trump and talked about his anemic anti-poverty program.)

The fact that the candidates didn’t take their opportunity to attack Trump was particularly surprising, coming as it did the week after Trump’s overwhelming victory in New Hampshire and countless stories about his strong lead nationally and in upcoming states. Moreover, the unexpected death of Justice Antonin Scalia provided an opportunity for the candidates to highlight Trump’s previous support for abortion rights and Roe v. Wade. The reduced field of candidates—there were only six onstage tonight—provided a further opportunity for a sustained attack on Trump. But it never came.  

As for those other candidates, Cruz had a few good moments (and may benefit from the fact that Trump and Bush went after each other). Rubio had no major gaffes but probably didn’t do himself any favors. And Kasich’s constant pleas for bipartisanship are more than grating; they seem aimed at a more sedate Republican Party that no longer exists.

That left Jeb. He cleverly associated Trump with Obama by saying they both blamed George W. Bush too often. And Jeb probably did a bit to dispel the image of himself as weak. (Unfortunately, like his brother, he is incapable of pronouncing the word nuclear.) But what he didn’t do was fundamentally change the race. Every day that passes with Trump holding a massive lead in the polls is a victory for him. Bush was good tonight, and if he had performed this well months ago it’s possible that this race would be different today. As it is, his victory tonight may just be a minor speed bump on Donald Trump’s road to the nomination.