John Kasich, Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, Donald Trump, Marco Rubio and Ben Carson take the stage beneath an image of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who died earlier in the day.(Erik S. Lesser / EPA)
Presidential candidates Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz and Donald Trump make their points at the GOP debate in Greenville, S.C.(Spencer Platt / Getty Images)
John Kasich and Jeb Bush have an exchange during the GOP presidential debate.(Spencer Platt / Getty Images)
John Kasich, Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, Donald Trump, Marco Rubio and Ben Carson participate in the Republican debate in South Carolina.(John Bazemore / Associated Press)
Businessman Donald Trump speaks during the debate. He is the GOP front-runner heading into the critical South Carolina primary.(John Bazemore / Associated Press)
Donald Trump, center, looks and listens as fellow presidential candidates Ted Cruz, left, and Marco Rubio argue back and forth during the debate.(Jim Watson / AFP/Getty Images)
Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush, a former governor of Florida, responds to businessman Donald Trump during the debate in Greenville, S.C.(John Bazemore / Associated Press)
Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson participates in(Spencer Platt / Getty Images)
Donald Trump speaks to U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida during the GOP debate in South Carolina.(John Bazemore / Associated Press)
The six Republicans running for president called one another liars 22 times, insulted each other’s families and even screamed at one another in Spanish as the party’s fierce battle over its identity crescendoed in their latest debate Saturday night.
The ninth GOP debate was the smallest, with the remaining candidates pressed to perform ahead of Saturday’s primary in South Carolina or risk losing relevance and being forced to drop out. The forum may also have been the least civil.
Donald Trump and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush encapsulated the GOP’s long-running schism between its establishment wing and its rebellious insurgency in a single raw and unusually personal exchange over the war in Iraq and the legacy of the George W. Bush era.
FOR THE RECORD: In the Feb. 14 Section A, an article about a debate in South Carolina among Republican presidential hopefuls referred to John Kasich as former Ohio governor. He is Ohio’s current governor.
“The war in Iraq was a big, fat mistake,” said Trump, the celebrity business mogul and front-runner for the Republican nomination.
“They lied,” Trump continued. “They said there were weapons of mass destruction. There were none.”
The audience booed. Trump lashed back, calling its members “Jeb’s special interests” and lobbyists.
Bush, defending his family, responded with uncharacteristic intensity.
“While Donald Trump was building a reality TV show, my brother was building a security apparatus to keep us safe,” he countered.
Trump shot back that President Bush’s efforts did little good, pointing to the destruction of the World Trade Center towers in the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. The crowd booed again.
The exchange finally ended when moderator John Dickerson turned to former Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who expressed astonishment at what had just happened.
“This is just crazy,” he said. “This is just nuts. Jeez, oh man.”
The rapid-fire argument was perhaps the nastiest in a night that featured several as the freshly rescrambled field campaigns in South Carolina, where some candidates are making what could be their final stand in the effort to take down Trump.
The death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia on Saturday also brought urgency to the debate, as the presidential hopefuls sought to position themselves as the party’s best hope of preserving his unyielding conservative legacy.
The loss of a leading conservative voice on a court narrowly divided along ideological lines brought the issue of electability to the forefront of the bitterly contested race. With Scalia’s loss, conservatives no longer have a court serving as a bulwark against certain liberal policies of the Obama administration.
“His loss is tremendous,” said Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida. “He will go down as one of the greatest justices in the history of this republic.”
“We are one justice away from a Supreme Court that will strike down every restriction on abortion,” he said. “We are one justice away from a Supreme Court that would undermine religious liberty for millions of Americans.”
But as the candidates were pressed on whether Republicans stood on firm legal ground in pushing to delay the confirmation of a replacement until after Obama has departed the White House, Trump was predictably frank.
Obama will nominate someone “whether I like it or not,” he said.
Trump has reclaimed his bravado after a disappointing second-place finish in Iowa’s caucuses. His strength in early states and large lead in national polls has prompted panic in the GOP establishment, which is suspicious of his ideologically mixed populist proposals and worried that his inflammatory rhetoric will alienate Latinos and other key groups.
Cruz, who has cast himself as a more purely conservative anti-establishment foe, has tried to frame the race as between himself and Trump.
“I like Donald; he’s an amazing entertainer,” Cruz said. “For most of his life, his policies have been very, very liberal.” Cruz went on, noting Trump’s past support for Planned Parenthood.
“You are the single biggest liar,” Trump interrupted. “You are probably worse than Jeb.”
“This guy will say anything,” he added. “He’s a nasty guy.”
Cruz also sparred with Rubio, as their long-simmering feud over immigration sizzled into new territory when the Floridian jabbed the Texan’s Spanish-language credentials.
“Marco has a long record when it comes to amnesty,” Cruz said, noting that during a Spanish-language interview on Univision, Rubio declined to say whether he would repeal Obama’s immigration executive actions, which protect some immigrants from deportations.
“I don’t know how he knows what I said on Univision, because he doesn’t speak Spanish,” Rubio shot back.
And that led Cruz to do something he rarely does: He spoke Spanish, a bit broken, but loudly enough to be heard over Rubio’s voice.
Both are the sons of immigrants from Cuba.
While the dynamics of the race have shifted since the GOP debate a week ago in New Hampshire, and the field has shrunk, no candidate has yet been able to consolidate the anti-Trump vote, including retired physician Ben Carson, who has faded in the polls.
After a poor showing in New Hampshire, Rubio is fighting to repair his image as a fresh and articulate party spokesman, especially on foreign policy, where he has tried to establish himself as an aggressive voice.
Bush faces nearly as much pressure as Rubio. He finished just well enough in New Hampshire to remain viable in South Carolina, where he is hoping to get a boost from his family’s successes in the state.
After distancing himself at times from the family name, Bush is clinging to it, with an event planned Monday in North Charleston with his older brother, George W. Bush.
Mehta reported from Greenville and Bierman and Halper from Washington. Times staff writer Lisa Mascaro in Washington contributed to this report.