Analysis

GOP brawl in South Carolina may have repercussions in the general election

As they fight for prominence in a South Carolina primary that has lived up to its riotous tradition, Republicans are framing their own candidacies and their party in ways that may hurt them in November.

The months-long rightward lurch of the 2016 candidates has grown even more pronounced in South Carolina; in Saturday night's televised debate and in remarks Sunday, both Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and former President George W. Bush were found wanting.

Candidates promoted opposition to gay rights and to abortion under any circumstances and support for unfettered access to guns, all issues that please the Republican base but run counter to the views of a general election audience.

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The death Saturday of Justice Antonin Scalia, and the desire for a GOP win in November to secure his conservative Supreme Court seat, has seemed only to increase both the stakes and the rhetoric.

On the Democratic side, national front-runner Hillary Clinton may have moved to the left in this primary season, but the presence of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders even further to the left has offered her a tinge of centrism.

There is no corresponding pull to the center among the Republican candidates. Adding to the harsh tenor of their campaign is the vituperative tone; a variation of "liar" was flung almost two dozen times by candidates in Saturday's angry debate.

Fresh from an aggressive debate appearance, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio acknowledged on Sunday that the demeanor of the South Carolina campaign might be a gift to Clinton were she to become the nominee. "Well, I think ultimately that's true," he said on CBS' "Face the Nation."

Voters have noticed as well.

"They're handing it over to Mrs. Clinton," said Nancy Kinlaw of Beaufort, S.C. She was referring to what she called "children up there bickering, fighting over a toy," but the policies the candidates have emphasized as they compete for conservative votes have done almost as much to define them in risky ways.

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Much of the positioning is driven by the tight battle for the Republican nomination, which has forced the candidates into a state-by-state fight for the most dependable GOP voters, who are also the most conservative. A runaway front-runner would be more free to venture toward the middle at least occasionally, but today's circumstances preclude that.

Candidates Donald Trump, John Kasich and Jeb Bush — who famously said early in the campaign that he would be willing to lose the primary in order to win the general election, a logical impossibility — have leaned toward a moderate policy notion or two but have been ravaged for it.

The general tone in South Carolina has been akin to what Texas Sen. Ted Cruz offered Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press," when he laid down a scorching defense of his conservative policies.

"If liberals are so confident that the American people want unlimited abortion on demand, want religious liberty torn down, want the 2nd Amendment taken away, want veterans' memorials torn down, want the crosses and stars of David sandblasted off of the tombstones of our fallen veterans, then go and make the case to the people," he said.

The night before, Rubio and Cruz engaged in a blistering fight over who was toughest toward illegal immigration. Rubio also reaffirmed his opposition to abortion, without any exceptions for victims of rape or incest, and to gay marriage.

"And we need to put people on the bench that understand that the Constitution is not a living and breathing document. It is to be interpreted as originally meant," he said, in a comment that waved aside the original Constitution's repressive views on women and minorities.

Various polls done over the last year by Pew Research illustrate the stark differences in attitudes between the voters who will decide the nomination and those who could vote in the general election.

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Only 32% of Republicans backed gay marriage; 57% of Americans did. Only 16% of conservative Republicans said abortion should be legal all or most of the time; among Americans the figure was 51%.

On guns and immigration, Republican candidates are even more conservative than their voters; 79% of Republicans and 85% of Americans want background checks to be expanded to include guns sold privately or at gun shows. A majority of Republicans, and 70% of the country overall, back a federal database to track gun sales. Another 53% of Republicans and 70% of Americans want some form of legal status for those in the country illegally.

But there has been no push for additional gun controls by the candidates, and only Ohio Gov. Kasich and former Florida Gov. Bush have pushed for legal status for immigrants without proper papers.

Democrats plan an all-out effort to spur turnout among women, Latinos, Asians and African Americans, groups with specific interests in the issues that have been emphasized in the GOP primary season.

Republicans seem to be betting that other concerns, such as national security and jobs, will be more important to voters. But the sideshow of angry debates and mocking remarks still poses a threat.

"All that arguing and all that bickering amongst the candidates doesn't get a single person a job," said Hogan Gidley, a Republican strategist and South Carolinian who worked for former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee before his departure from the race.

"It doesn't ensure a single kid gets clothes on his back. It doesn't ensure a single mother has the ability to feed her children," he said. "That bickering doesn't do anything to solve the problems that face this country."

cathleen.decker@latimes.com

Twitter: @cathleendecker

Times staff writers Lisa Mascaro and Seema Mehta in South Carolina contributed to this report.

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A version of this article appeared in print on February 15, 2016, in the News section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Rightward shift, jabs may cost GOP field" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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