Trump lands potential knock-out blow on Bush in Republican debate
Published 16/02/2016 | 02:30
Donald Trump threw some Mike Tyson-calibre haymakers in the Republican debate in South Carolina and may have wound up finishing off the Bush dynasty.
A gaffe in American politics is when a candidate tells the truth and everyone acts mortified.
Trump certainly did that, laying the fault of the Iraq war squarely where it belonged, on George W Bush, and saying, contrary to Republican gospel, that W did not keep America safe, as 9/11 happened on his watch. His unvarnished truths gave all the other candidates and the Republican establishment a real dose of the backdoor trots, as South Carolinians sometimes call diarrhoea.
They were outraged, outraged, that anyone could tell such a truth on national TV, despite the fact that it was true.
The orthodoxy is to blame everything on either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama - somehow, some way - but clearly the GOP were in power when bad things happened in Iraq and at the World Trade Centre.
Mr Trump was clearly intent on savaging Jeb Bush, who is not even his most dangerous rival, but is the guy who spent $20m (€18m) on negative ads against him on New Hampshire television.
The ads did not work but Mr Trump will never forget the attempt to finish him. There is also something about the patrician image and holier than thou attitude of the Bushes that incenses Mr Trump. He knows they fight just as dirty as anyone else while hiding behind noblesse oblige.
There are moments, and the debate was one, where you can understand Mr Trump's appeal. Every piece of conventional political wisdom states it is suicide to attack the Bushes in South Carolina, where the family name is still very popular.
Mr Trump just dove right in.
The nattering nabobs on cable TV were appalled but Mr Trump has bedevilled them from the start of this campaign and may have done so yet again.
They tut-tutted and stated that Mr Trump had lost it, but they have called him wrongly throughout. Besides he brings nice and juicy ratings every time he opens his mouth. As conservative talk show host Laura Ingraham put it: the media seems to have no idea just how unpopular the Bushes actually are these days, which is why Jeb has spent $50m (€45m) and trails in fourth place out of sixth.
South Carolina is a dirty town when it comes to sliming fellow candidates. The Bushes have a long and sad history of using the black arts there.
When John McCain ran in 2000, the George W Bush campaign allegedly put it about that he had fathered a black child, but it turned out to be a little Asian girl Mr McCain and his wife had adopted.
George W then appeared at the notorious Bob Jones University, which at one time had believed in segregation and banned blacks (as well as giving Ian Paisley an honorary doctorate); Mr McCain refused to.
You can guess who won.
Then there was the much- revered Poppy Bush, some of whose supporters in 1988 spread the Willie Horton story about his Democratic rival, Mike Dukakis, showering the air waves with images of the black ex-convict who killed while on parole, and saying Mr Dukakis allowed it. It finished off Mr Dukakis too.
So Mr Trump stated the obvious and was castigated for it. One can take great issue with Mr Trump on many issues, but exposing the dark side of the Bush legacy is not one of them.
Besides, it does not appear to have hurt him.
The CBS poll released on Valentine's Day showed Mr Trump at 42pc, 20 points ahead of his nearest challenger, while he was 36 points ahead of Jeb Bush, on just 6pc.
It seems like he is going to skate home in this one, too.
There was also good news for Hillary Clinton, with a 20-point lead, 60 to 40, in South Carolina in that CBS poll, and it looks like her southern firewall, where states with vastly larger numbers of blacks and Hispanics take part, is holding.
Bernie Sanders leads among whites and young people, the groups that gave him victory in 95pc white New Hampshire, but this is a very different electorate and the prophets of doom for Hillary may be eating their words.
The Democrats will vote in South Carolina on February 27, a week after the Republicans do so, and in between for them, on February 20, come the Nevada caucuses.
The Nevada caucuses are notoriously hard to predict as voters can enrol on the actual day to vote, which leaves it very difficult to calculate turnout.
Ms Clinton should have the advantage with the Harry Reid machine behind her. He is the minority leader in the US Senate, who has run Nevada Democratic politics for decades. There is also a large Hispanic and African American element but Mr Sanders may get massive union support, which could lead to a close race.
After South Carolina and Nevada comes Super Tuesday, March 1, when Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Georgia, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Vermont, Virginia, Oklahoma, Texas, Tennessee and Colorado all vote.
By March 2, we should have a very clear, if not total, understanding of where the two races are heading.
It seems likely to come down to two possibilities: Ted Cruz versus Ms Clinton or Mr Trump versus Ms Clinton. Marco Rubio and Mr Sanders are still in there with an outside chance of making the big game but it seems unlikely, especially as Mr Sanders is almost unknown in the south and Mr Rubio had that Death-Star moment when New Jersey Governor Chris Christie eviscerated him in a debate.
So the race is finally ready to take a decisive turn but let's not rule out another shocking surprise before it settles down to just two. After all, it has been that kind of year.