NORTH CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA – Republicans square off in their latest U.S. presidential debate Thursday just 18 days before all-important first votes are cast in the nominations race, and front-runner Donald Trump will likely face attacks from all sides.
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 an obsession with Trump and his inflammatory, name-calling rhetoric.
They received a dramatic boost when South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, considered by some a potential vice presidential pick, attacked the celebrity billionaire in the party’s official response to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address.
“During anxious times, it can be tempting to follow the siren call of the angriest voices. We must resist that temptation,” she said.
The political shot resounded in a Republican Party torn by a struggle between a rebellious rank-and-file drawn to Trump’s outsider populism and the party’s conservative establishment.
By picking Haley, the daughter of Indian immigrants, GOP leaders — who reportedly green-lighted her speech — were effectively announcing they had had it with Trump’s toxic brand of ethno-nationalism.
Party leaders gathering Thursday in Baltimore for the annual Republican congressional retreat refused to be drawn into discussing Trump.
But they were clear about their support for Haley, with House Speaker Paul Ryan hailing her on Twitter as “one of the most effective leaders in our party.”
Sen. John Thune, a member of Senate leadership, said he thought Haley was spot on.
“What we want to do is articulate a clear, positive vision agenda,” he told reporters, although he deflected questions about whether Trump was right for the party.
“When we have a nominee, hopefully we’ll be able to sync up with them and their agenda.”
One candidate who confronts Trump Thursday, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, unleashed a hard-hitting ad savaging Trump for the way he mocked a reporter with disabilities.
“That’s why I called him a jerk,” Bush says in the spot.
“What kind of person would you want to have in the presidency who does that? At what point do we say, ‘Enough of this, let’s start solving problems?'”
Trump, who has relentlessly proven his savvy in the campaign, sought to turn Haley’s criticism 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, broadcast on Fox Business Network, kicks off around 9:00 p.m. (0200 GMT Friday), while three low-polling White House hopefuls compete in an undercard event three hours earlier.
There is an unquestionable paradox in the establishment drilling into the man who for months has led Republican polls by a substantial margin.
Critics warn he is a self-promoter who lacks the temperament or experience to be commander in chief.
“He is the Kim Kardashian of politics,” low-polling former business executive Carly Fiorina told the Des Moines Register newspaper.
“But this isn’t a reality show. It’s not entertainment. It’s deadly serious now.”
The heartland state of Iowa kicks off the voting in the race for the Republican nomination on Feb. 1. New Hampshire follows eight days later.
Trump will be joined on stage Thursday by conservative Sen. Ted Cruz, his nearest competitor; Sen. Marco Rubio; retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson; New Jersey Gov.r Chris Christie; Ohio Gov. John Kasich; and Bush.
Fiorina will join the undercard debate with former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Sen. Rick Santorum.
Sen. Rand Paul, who missed the cut for the main event, said he is boycotting the undercard.
Trump has ridden a wave of populist anger with Washington, frustration over the nation’s lackluster economic recovery, and fear about a growing terrorism threat.
The latest incident with Iran, the seizure and then release of 10 U.S. Navy sailors, is sure to fuel accusations by the Republican candidates that Obama’s weak foreign policy is leaving the world more dangerous.
Trump set off a global firestorm by calling for a ban on Muslims entering the United States, and has pledged to deport millions of undocumented immigrants if elected.
The anti-establishment Trump said he was unfazed by the party leadership’s shots across his bow.
“They have to do what they have to do,” he said.