The Republican presidential candidates were squaring off Saturday night for their last debate before the South Carolina primary, just hours after the race – and the country itself – was rocked by the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.
Scalia’s death thrusts the issue of judicial appointments into the 2016 race, raising the possibility that the next president immediately will have to fill a high court vacancy. While President Obama may nominate a successor, it’s unclear whether he can get any appointee confirmed in the Republican-led Senate.
Although the prospect of a Supreme Court vacancy now looms over the race, the South Carolina primary already was heating up on several fronts in recent days, with the candidates trading accusations on immigration and other issues.
The CBS News-hosted debate in Greenville, S.C., comes one week before the state’s Republican primary election.
The largely conservative southern state has big and influential military and evangelical populations.
This represents a balancing act for the race’s front-runner. Trump — who vows, if elected, to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and tighten U.S. immigration policy – has a platform that appeals to security hawks. However, his occasionally crude language risks offending some of the state’s evangelicals and other social conservatives.
“National security is at the top of the list,” Matt Moore, chairman of the state Republican Party, told Fox News on Saturday, hours before the debate in Greenville.
A poor debate and primary performance could further winnow the field – with pressure heavy on Carson, who has steadily dropped in national polls since the fall, and even on Kasich, who invested heavily in New Hampshire and placed second but faces questions about his viability elsewhere.
Still, Kasich, a moderate, suggested at town hall event Wednesday that he plans to continue after South Carolina, a calendar that includes 15 states and U.S. territories holding primaries on Super Tuesday, on March 1.
Beyond national security, jobs are also an issue.
The state’s unemployment rate is at about 5.5 percent, slightly above the average. But many of the high-paying jobs are along the state’s popular and heavily populated southeastern coast.
In addition, residents are still mourning the shooting deaths in June of nine black parishioners at a Charleston church. But conservatives in the state still appear to resist legislation that could infringe on gun rights.