Ted Cruz has many enemies in the United States Senate, and only one pretty good friend: Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, who, like Cruz, is a tea party darling. So it must have been welcome news in the Cruz camp when Lee came to South Carolina this week to hit the campaign trail with Cruz. (Remember, Donald Trump has been knocking Cruz as an unlikable, nasty guy, and pointing out that not one of his Senate colleagues has endorsed him.)

There was just one catch: Lee was campaigning with Cruz, but he wasn't endorsing him. In fact, hours before Lee gave a speech introducing and praising Cruz at a barbecue joint in Easley, South Carolina, Lee hailed Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida at a CrossFit gym in nearby Greenville, where he told an audience of conservatives, "I don't know anyone in Washington who knows the Bible quite as well as Marco Rubio does."

For now, Lee is undecided about whom to support in the Republican presidential primary and apparently playing the field. (He told reporters in Easley that he would endorse someone, sometime.) That has put him in an awkward position as a supporter of two competing candidates currently locked in a fight about who is or isn't a scoundrel. Even more awkward was that Lee delivered essentially the same speech for both Rubio and Cruz: a historical allegory about the lessons of the Boston Tea Party and the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia.

As Cruz tries to maintain second place in the South's first primary state, he has brought in a few reinforcements. Reps. Steve King of Iowa and Louie Gohmert of Texas (known for coining the term "terror babies") joined him to talk up Cruz's anti-immigration bona fides. But Rubio, who is fiercely challenging Cruz for second—both trail Trump in the polls—has greater local support and is traveling the state with the "cavalry." That's what Republican Sen. Tim Scott calls the South Carolina lawmakers in Rubio's corner: Gov. Nikki Haley, Rep. Trey Gowdy (of Benghazi committee fame), and Scott himself. Scott and Gowdy, who each display a half-decent comedic repartee at Rubio campaign events, teamed up for a radio ad on Rubio's behalf.

In a street fight like this, Cruz could use more prominent allies. But he couldn't even get his buddy Lee to go all the way with an endorsement.

The Zika virus has spread throughout Latin America and other parts of the world, and many of the affected countries are Catholic, with strict bans on abortion and restrictions on contraception. But Pope Francis changed the conversation on Thursday when he said women in the region are justified in using contraception to prevent having children with the birth defect microcephaly.

He compared the current situation to one in the '60s, when Pope Paul VI permitted nuns in Africa to use contraception due to the threat of rape.

"Avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil," Francis said following his trip to Mexico. "In certain cases, as in this one, such as the one I mentioned of Blessed Paul VI, it was clear. I would also ask doctors to do their utmost to find vaccines against these mosquitoes that carry this disease. This needs to be worked on."

The rapid spread of the virus has reignited debates over contraception and access to abortion in Catholic countries. The mosquito-borne illness, which has been contracted by millions of people, has been tentatively linked to microcephaly, a birth defect that causes babies' heads to remain much smaller than those of average children. As Mother Jones reported in January, that finding prompted Latin American governments to urge women to avoid pregnancy altogether, something medical experts in the region said was virtually impossible for women without access to family planning services.

Pope Francis' statements on Thursday run counter to traditional Catholic practices, which say artificial contraception is wrong no matter the circumstances. Earlier this month, Catholic leaders in Latin America reiterated the church's opposition, saying contraception is "not a solution" to the virus and that the church has not changed its position.

The pope's flexibility on contraception did not extend to abortion. Francis emphasized the continuing opposition of the Church to abortion, comparing the procedure to something "the Mafia does."

"Abortion isn't a lesser evil," he told reporters. "It's a crime. It's an absolute evil."

All the Republican presidential candidates have seized on the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia to make the case for electing one of their own next fall, but Ben Carson is the first of this lot to exploit the justice's passing for a radio ad. In a spot running on conservative talk radio in South Carolina, a narrator declares that Scalia's unrelenting opposition to affirmative action was a defining part of his legacy and then promises that Carson will carry the torch for the late justice by promoting "compassionate action" if elected president.

Scalia believed that "we are just one race—American," the ad begins. Then it continues:

He thought affirmative action was wrong. That racial entitlement preserves the way of thinking that produced slavery, racial privilege, and hatred. More than anyone else running for president, Dr. Ben Carson knows about race—and hatred. He was raised in the ghettos of Detroit. He saw the face of hatred, bigotry, and violence firsthand. So when Dr. Carson says we should replace affirmative action with compassionate action, that it's a fairer way to treat people, we should listen to him.

The ad is consistent with what Carson has been saying throughout the campaign—that left-wing "political correctness" poses a greater threat to the United States than, say, the structural racism that affirmative action seeks to address. And with this radio spot, the only African American candidate in the race is seeking to win back GOP voters by citing the fellow whom many conservatives embraced as their movement's most prominent anti-PC crusader. As the ad notes—in something of a non sequitur—"Judge Scalia's life has taught us, if you’ve lived the life you believe in, you've earned the right to speak about what it has taught you. The rest is just political correctness."

Pope Francis, who is in the middle of a six-day tour of Mexico, suggested on Thursday morning that GOP front-runner Donald Trump is not a Christian because of the billionaire's hardline pledge to build a wall at the Mexico-US border. The remarks were first reported by the Associated Press, from aboard the papal plane.

"A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian," he replied when asked about Trump by a reporter.

The AP reported that while Francis said he had not read Trump's specific plans, he added, "This man is not Christian if he said it this way."

Trump quickly hit back at Francis during his own press conference, in which he called the pope's remarks "disgraceful."

Earlier this week, Francis condemned the United States' current immigration policy as a "human tragedy." Read Trump's full statement responding to the pope's remarks below:

If and when the Vatican is attacked by ISIS, which as everyone knows is ISIS’s 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. ISIS would have been eradicated unlike what is happening now with our all talk, no action politicians.

The Mexican government and its leadership has made many disparaging remarks about me to the Pope, because they want to continue to rip off the United States, both on trade and at the border, and they understand I am totally wise to them. The Pope only heard one side of the story - he didn’t see the crime, the drug trafficking and the negative economic impact the current policies have on the United States. He doesn’t see how Mexican leadership is outsmarting President Obama and our leadership in every aspect of negotiation.

For a religious leader to question a person’s faith is disgraceful. I am proud to be a Christian and as President I will not allow Christianity to be consistently attacked and weakened, unlike what is happening now, with our current President. No leader, especially a religious leader, should have the right to question another man’s religion or faith. They are using the Pope as a pawn and they should be ashamed of themselves for doing so, especially when so many lives are involved and when illegal immigration is so rampant.

Jeb Bush: I Am Not a Wimp

Jeb Bush can't escape Donald Trump, and with three days to go before South Carolina Republicans cast their votes in the first Southern primary, the frustration is starting to show. As he finished his stump speech at a golf course in Summerville, the former Florida governor made an uncharacteristically sarcastic appeal to conservative voters.

"I know how to beat Hillary Clinton, I know how to win, and I ask for your support on Saturday," Bush said. "It's all been decided, apparently—the pundits have made it all, we don't have to go vote, I guess. I should stop campaigning maybe, huh?"

"Nooo!" the audience replied.

"It's all been decided," Bush continued.

When it came time for questions, the subject turned to Trump—that is, Trump's never-ending thumping of Bush. A Bush supporter took the microphone to say he'd been looking forward to hearing Bush speak "without interruption." Bush laughed. But the man continued: "I've known for a long time you are the best-qualified person to be president of the United States, and I thank your for that, but I'm afraid that your message does not resonate to the national community."

The fellow suggested that was because Bush was overshadowed and outmaneuvered by Trump. "I was wondering if, because of your civility, if you could raise the bar in the next [debate] and try to be beyond the bullying? Because I think that's who you are, and I think they try to knock you off center, and it appears you do get knocked off center, like anyone would because of the insults to your family." He asked if Bush could demonstrate that he wouldn't be bullied—by politicians or foreign leaders—if elected president.

"First of all, I don't feel like I'm shaken up by the bully," Bush answered. "In fact, I'm the only guy going after the guy, because he's hijacking the party." Bush defended his debate posture as a mix of "loaf of bread" policy proposals and hard-nosed politics. Referring to his chief nemesis, he added, "Donald Trump's not a conservative, he's not a steady hand—for sure—and he's not a servant. It's all about him. And I'm the only guy going after him. I don't feel that he's intimidating. He's a bully! Punch him back in the nose!"

This wasn't convincing for everyone there. A few minutes later, another voter asked Bush about his lack of fight. "I think the campaign has been co-opted by the P.T. Barnum of our time," the man said. "And I think he is getting you off your message—your good message, and all the items that you shared with us today. And I think I would encourage you to emphasize those things more."

"I do!" Bush said, a bit too defensively. "This is called 'campaigning' right now."

"No, I mean, sir, on the more national level," the man said. "To the extent that you can. I know when you get into the debates it's a free-for-all sometimes. But I would encourage you to go not just on your record but on your plans."

The last questioner told Bush, "I love your brother, George W. Bush." And what he liked about that other Bush was his ability to play hardball when necessary. "Excuse me for saying in vernacular terms," this voter asked, but could Jeb Bush be a "son of a bitch"?

"Is that a question?" Bush responded. "Will I be an S.O.B., I think he said? I will be tough, I will be resolute, I will be firm, I will be clear, I will be determined—that's what leaders are. I won't cut and run. That's—I mean look, I'm following all this stuff like everyone else and I will tell you there are some politicians that are gifted at weaving through everything for their own ambitions. They're looking at the next step. They're moving to the next place. They're always trying to figure it out. That's not me. I run to the crisis." Was that a yes? Or a no?

Marco Rubio trails by Donald Trump by 20 points ahead of Saturday's South Carolina Republican primary, a contest that has all but once in its history chosen the party's eventual nominee. But as Rubio began his final pitch to conservative voters Wednesday morning at a Shriners' Hall in Mt. Pleasant, there was one subject he wouldn't talk about: Trump.

In recent days, his Republican rivals—mainly Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush—have tried to position themselves as the Trump slayer. And Rubio's own campaign manager has publicly contemplated the prospect of a Trump-dominated contest leading to a brokered convention. But for now Rubio himself is not directly addressing the guy who's poised to blow him and the other GOP contenders out of the water in the Palmetto State. Instead of decrying Trump's impact on the Republican Party, he's been expressing concern about the hostile takeover of the other major party. "The Democratic party's been taken over by radical left-wing elements—their leading contender leading in some of the national polls is an avowed Democratic Socialist," he told the a few hundred voters at Shriners' Hall. "I promise you that if someone that far right as he is far left had taken over the Republican party, every day you'd be hearing stories the Republican party has become radicalized—the Democratic party's been radicalized!"

Rubio, though, could not resist a tangential dig at the real estate mogul. He raised the subject of eminent domain, and said, "Theoretically, I'm not saying this happens, but theoretically for a moment, imagine that a developer decided they wanted to take private property away to build a hotel or something like that—just theoretically." The largely-supportive audience laughed, and Rubio continued: "After the Kelo decision in 2006, the Supreme Court said that's legal—a developer can use the power of government to take away your property because government thinks they'd rather have a hotel there instead of a house. You can't do that in Florida because when I was in the state legislature I led the effort to pass a law that would become a model for the country."

That was a dig at Trump, who has been attacked by his GOP foes for having used eminent domain for his own private projects. But it did seem that Rubio had decided not to mention the T-word—as if speaking the name might disturb the exiled Dark Lord and his Death Eaters.

Rubio did not take questions at the event, which was advertised as a town hall. But speaking to reporters afterwards, the Florida senator ripped into Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, accusing his legislative colleague of being a politician who "will say and do anything to get elected." Rubio also brought up the massive ad campaign by a pro-Jeb Bush super-PAC to take him down (by, among other things, making fun of his boots). But no explicit slam on Trump. On this matter, the most hawkish guy in the race is a real dove.

 

Scalia's Death Might Have Saved Abortion Rights

The unexpected death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia on Saturday will not change the court's schedule. The nation's highest court is still set to hear oral arguments on portions of Texas' 2013 anti-abortion law this March, making their final decision on it by late June. And while the justice's passing has left the fate of Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt up in the air, the outlook may be positive for abortion rights.

The case, formerly Whole Woman's Health v. Cole, centers on two provisions of HB 2, the omnibus Texas law first enacted in 2013; one provision requires that abortion providers have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals, and another requires clinics to offer hospital-like standards.

The defendants, an abortion clinic represented by the Center for Reproductive Rights, successfully argued in Texas state court that the provisions created an "undue burden" for Texas women seeking abortions by shuttering clinics and forcing women to travel hundreds of miles or leave the state for the procedure. The "undue burden" standard for abortion restrictions was established in a 1992 Supreme Court case, when the justices ruled that states cannot enact restrictions that pose an "undue burden" on women's access to abortion services. But the 5th Circuit Court upheld both sets of restrictions last June, sending them up to the nation's highest court for review.

Scalia, who before his death was the longest-sitting member of the Court, was one of five conservative justices and a conservative Catholic known for his opposition to abortion rights, gay marriage, and affirmative action. He was an outspoken adversary of Roe v. Wade, and in a 2011 interview he called the case an "absurdity," adding, "You want a right to abortion? There's nothing in the Constitution about that."

"Scalia has been the brains behind the movement to conservatism within the judiciary," Scott Horton, a human rights attorney and contributing editor at Harper's magazine, told Democracy Now. "His role [on the court] is extremely important, and his departure immediately shifts the nature of the court."

His absence means that if all the justices vote along conservative-progressive lines, the court would be split 4-4. When there is a split decision, the court would defer to the 5th Circuit's opinion that upheld the restrictions, which would be disastrous for women seeking abortions in Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi, states that are under the jurisdiction of the district court.

But a split decision could also mean that Roe v. Wade would remain intact for now. That's because, as abortion rights advocates had feared, the justices could not use Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt as an opportunity to issue a more sweeping opinion, one that would not only uphold the Texas law but gut abortion protections that have already been secured. Upholding the lower court's decision would mean there would be no federal precedent determining whether admitting privileges and strict architectural standards are fair game for states interested in restricting abortion.

There is also a possibility that the court will actually rehear the case instead of affirming the lower court's decision. In this scenario, the justices would order the matter be reheard next year, essentially starting from scratch once a new justice has been appointed. There's precedent for this from the 1950s, after the death of Justice Robert Jackson, when the court heard re-arguments in three cases after Justice John Marshall Harlan was appointed. But according to experts, the court may decide not to delay because it could take upwards of a year to even appoint a replacement for Scalia.

"In other words, it is possible for the stakes to get even higher about Justice Scalia's replacement, and rehearing legal challenges…would do just that," wrote Jessica Mason Pieklo, a senior legal analyst for RH Reality Check.

Of course, a tie isn't the only possible outcome. Some legal observers are suggesting that Justice Anthony Kennedy might side with progressives and vote to strike down the Texas restrictions. In that scenario, the Texas provisions as well as similar laws in Louisiana and Mississippi would be blocked, and lower court decisions striking down state laws would be upheld.

President Barack Obama offered a preview on Tuesday of the pressure Republicans will face as long as they block a vote on a nominee to the Supreme Court. After Justice Antonin Scalia died unexpectedly over the weekend, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell quickly stated that the Senate would not consider any nominee in a presidential election year—a stance that even a few of his Republican colleagues believe is a politically dangerous position to take. Speaking at a press conference in California, Obama offered a peek at the kind of political arguments that could rain down on Republican presidential candidates and senators up for reelection if they refuse to vote on his nominee.

"The Constitution is pretty clear about what is supposed to happen now," Obama said. "When there is a vacancy on the Supreme Court, the president of the United States is to nominate someone. The Senate is to consider that nomination. And either they disapprove of that nominee or that nominee is elevated to the Supreme Court. Historically, this has not been viewed as a question. There's no unwritten law that says it can only be done on off-years."

The president pointed out that Constitutional originalists (like Scalia) are now somehow finding in the text of the Constitution an excuse for him not to nominate a replacement. He challenged anyone who believes in the Constitution to come up "with a plausible rational for why they won't even have a hearing…It's pretty hard to find that in the Constitution." He also used the opportunity to bring up the fact that the GOP-controlled Senate is holding up many of his nominees, from judicial candidates to ambassadors to appointees for positions at federal agencies. Obama characterized the Senate's current obstruction over nominations as follows: "If we don't like the president, we're just not going to let the president make any appointments." He added, "This has become a habit and it gets worse and worse each year."

And for those reading the tea leaves about whom Obama will pick as a nominee, Obama said only that his selection would be "indisputably qualified" so that it will be hard for the Senate to protest his nomination. Asked in a follow-up question whether that meant he intended to nominate a moderate who might appeal to Republicans, Obama responded, "No."

On Sunday, as news of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia's death a day earlier sparked questions about the protocol for filling his seat, radio host Alex Jones was tackling a more serious dilemma: What if Scalia was murdered?

Breaking: Justice Scalia Murdered?

Posted by Alex Jones on Saturday, February 13, 2016

"You just get used to this: 'Scalia found, it's natural, nothing going on here, he just died naturally,'" Jones said on his show. "Then you realize, Obama is just one vote away from being able to ban guns, open the borders, and actually have the court engage in its agenda and now Scalia dies. My gut tells me they killed him, and all the intellectual evidence lays it out."

Conspiracy theories are Jones' calling card, and they often bounce around right-wing radio without entering the political mainstream. But the day after Jones presented his theory, a much more powerful voice joined the conversation about a possible Scalia murder: Donald Trump.

On Monday, the Republican presidential front-runner fanned the flames of the Scalia assassination theory. Trump, who heads into the upcoming South Carolina primary and Nevada caucus with leads of 18.5 and 13 points, respectively, called Scalia's death "pretty unusual" during a broadcast of The Savage Nation with host and conservative commentator Michael Savage. Savage raised the possibility that Scalia had been murdered, and asked Trump whether an immediate autopsy was necessary.

"Well, I just heard today and that was just a little while ago actually—you know I just landed and I'm hearing it's a big topic—that's the question," Trump said. "And it's a horrible topic, but they say they found a pillow on his face, which is a pretty unusual place to find a pillow."

Twelve percent of men between the ages of 75 and 84 are diagnosed with coronary heart disease or experience a heart attack every year. But now that Trump has weighed in, it's clear that an alternate explanation for Scalia's death—one in which the US government assassinated a Supreme Court justice and left the murder weapon on his face—will be playing a role in the political conversation in the days and weeks to come.

Hoping to flip the script on a series of anti-abortion laws in her home state, a Kentucky lawmaker is proposing a bill that would mandate that men who were seeking Viagra must receive their spouses' permission before getting the drug.

"I thought if we're going to insert ourselves into women’s most private health care decisions, then we should insert ourselves into men’s most private health care decisions, as well," Rep. Mary Lou Marzian (D) told the Times.

The proposal would require men to have two doctors visits and a signed note from their spouse before they can score a prescription of the blue pill.

Marzian's bill is in response to several anti-abortion laws recently enacted in Kentucky, including a measure that requires women to have a medical consultation 24 hours before getting an abortion. It was the very first piece of legislation Gov. Matt Bevin signed into law in February as a newly elected governor. Another measure, which is likely to pass soon, will force women seeking abortions to undergo an ultrasound and listen to a doctor's description of the image. According to the Courier-Journal, the bill would not make women look at the image.

Marzian's bill hopes to highlight the intrusiveness of such laws. It also comes in the tradition of similarly tongue-and-cheek proposals that were inspired by Republican laws that intended to curtail reproductive rights. In 2012, one Illinois lawmaker introduced a bill to mandate that men seeking Viagra watch a video detailing some of the possible side effects of the drug, like priapism, the prolonged erection of a penis.

"As a woman and a pro-choice woman and as an elected official, I am sick and tired of men—mostly white men—legislating personal, private medical decision," Marzian told CNN. "It's none of their business."