Washington: Republicans square off in their latest US presidential debate today, just 18 days before all-important first votes are cast in the nominations race, after a rising party star delivered an extraordinary rebuke to frontrunner Donald Trump. Seven candidates will take the main stage in South Carolina, with six focused on how to knock the real-estate tycoon off his perch and finally bring the 2016 campaign to a debate about issues rather than obsession over Trump’s celebrity bombast.
South Carolina’s young, charismatic governor Nikki Haley, considered by some a potential vice presidential pick, essentially cleared the way for Trump’s rivals by attacking the rhetoric of the celebrity billionaire. Her remarks — “During anxious times, it can be tempting to follow the siren call of the angriest voices. We must resist that temptation” — were all the more potent as they came in the official Republican response to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address Tuesday.
“Some people think that you have to be the loudest voice in the room to make a difference. That is just not true,” she said pointedly.
The message marked political shots fired in the civil war roiling the Republican Party, specifically Trump’s outsider populism versus his rivals in the conservative establishment. By picking Haley, the daughter of Indian immigrants, GOP leaders — who reportedly cleared the speech before she addressed the nation — were effectively announcing they had had it with Trump’s toxic brand of ethno-nationalism.
But Trump, who has relentlessly proven his savvy in the campaign, sought to deflect the criticism and turn Haley’s hammering into a positive.
“As far as I’m concerned, anger is OK. Anger and energy is what this country needs,” Trump told CNN in reacting to Haley’s remarks. “I like her, she’s a very nice woman, but she’s very weak on the subject of illegal immigration.” The main debate kicks off around 9:00 pm (0200 GMT Friday), while three low-polling White House hopefuls compete in an undercard event three hours earlier.
On the same day, Republicans in the House of Representatives gather in Baltimore, near the capital Washington, for their annual winter retreat.
Much of their closed-door discussion will focus on the congressional agenda during an election year, including how to improve the immigration system and defeat Islamic State extremists.