- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 18, 2016

GREENVILLE, S.C. | Donald Trump managed to get into a virtual shouting match with Pope Francis on Thursday, as the GOP careened toward one of the most intense, bruising and bizarre showdowns in primary history.

As the campaigns fired accusations back and forth accusing each other of lying, Mr. Trump stepped outside of the fray for a few moments to take aim at the pontiff, after Francis said the billionaire businessman wasn’t a Christian if he wanted to build a border fence.

“If and when the Vatican is attacked by ISIS, which as everyone knows is ISIS’ ultimate trophy, I can promise you that the pope would have only wished and prayed that Donald Trump would have been president because this would not have happened,” he said.

Earlier in the day, after a trip to Mexico in which he visited the U.S. border, Francis took aim at Mr. Trump.

“A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not of building bridges, is not Christian. This is not the gospel,” the pope said. He said he wasn’t trying to influence the election, but repeated his charge that Mr. Trump is “not Christian” based on his proposals.

Mr. Trump said it was “disgraceful” for the pope to question someone’s faith. And indeed, the pontiff’s challenge would likely apply to most Americans, because building more border-fencing polls well, and several other major politicians, including Hillary Clinton and President Obama, have backed more border fencing in the past.

Other candidates tried to stay out of the fight.

“That’s between Donald and the pope,” said Sen. Ted Cruz. “I’m not going to get in the middle of that.”

But Mr. Cruz did continue to mix it up with his fellow candidates, drawing new charges of dirty tricks with a mailing that went out to voters in South Carolina showing a photoshopped photo of Mr. Obama and Sen. Marco Rubio shaking hands.

The move may have been intended to try to derail the surging Mr. Rubio, who appeared at rallies with Gov. Nikki Haley and Sen. Tim Scott, both of whom have endorsed him.

The visual of the Hispanic Mr. Rubio with Mr. Scott, the only black Republican in the Senate, and Ms. Haley, who is Indian-American, served as a backdrop for the candidate’s call to turn to a new generation of GOP leaders in this race.

“I am as conservative as anyone running in this race, but I am a conservative that can win,” Mr. Rubio said. “That’s a big deal.”

Many voters here have said they’re looking ahead to the general election, when they expect the GOP nominee to have to face off against Mrs. Clinton. That calculation has helped Mr. Rubio, who polls show runs well against her. Mr. Kasich also polls well in match-ups with Mrs. Clinton.

The latest polling in South Carolina shows Mr. Trump with a comfortable lead with the support of somewhere between 30 percent and 35 percent of GOP primary voters. Mr. Rubio and Mr. Cruz are battling for second, which explains why their feud has become the most heated.

Trailing them is Mr. Kasich, who has tried to stay above the fray; retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who voters here say they like, but worry they are wasting a vote by backing him; and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, whose attempts to use his famous family to recuse his campaign appear not to be working.

Mr. Bush had made a campaign calculation that if he could knock Mr. Trump down, voters might flow to him. But that has prompted questions from voters here.

“Are you scared of Donald Trump? Somethings up,” a young man asked at a town hall Thursday.

“Yes, he’s not a conservative. He’s the leading candidate in the conservative party. He’s hijacked our party,” Mr. Bush said to applause from the crowd in a convention center in Columbia. “I’ve been a conservative all my life.”

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