02/18/2016 17:40 EST | Updated 02/18/2017 00:12 EST

Trump vs. The Pope: An unusual presidential candidate finds a holy new nemesis

KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. — An overflow crowd on an island golf resort was treated to an unprecedented twist Thursday on the ritual airing of grievances that constitutes a standard Donald Trump stump speech.

Forget feuds with Fox News hosts, Mexican migrants, Muslim tourists, celebrity critics, Republican rivals, people who doubt his poll numbers, the mainstream media, the Bush family, Democrats and suspected army deserter Bowe Bergdahl.

This time Trump jabbed at a holy heavyweight of a political sparring partner: Pope Francis. And in the space of an 18-minute stream-of-consciousness aside Thursday, Trump's already unusual campaign reached heavenly new heights of strangeness.

The Republican poll-leader began by raising his arms in an expression of wounded pride while informing the crowd that he'd received some distressing news on his way in.

"He actually said that maybe I'm not a good Christian or something. It's unbelievable," Trump said. 

"For a religious leader to question a person's faith is disgraceful."

By his own no-holds-barred standards, Trump went relatively soft on the pontiff. He actually spent more time blasting the Mexican government, which he accused of filling the Pope's head with bad ideas.

On his way out of Mexico, the leader of the 1.2 billion-member church was asked about Trump's plan to expel illegal migrants and build a border wall.

Francis responded this way: "A person who thinks only about building walls — wherever they may be — and not building bridges, is not Christian."

Ding, ding, ding. Another rival stepped into the ring. And rising once again to Trump's defence was a noisy cheering section within a conservative movement split over his candidacy.

As Trump drew laughs and applause inside the room — so overfilled that police shut off the nearby road and turned cars away — Rush Limbaugh took to the airwaves.

He swung at the Pope much harder than Trump. He accused Francis of wanting to flood the U.S. with newcomers to make it more socialist. He pointed out that the Vatican has walls, too. He criticized him for taking in only a few Syrian refugees in his city-state, while preaching for others to bring in millions.

He called the Pope a radical leftist — perhaps even too far left for Democratic contender Sen. Bernie Sanders. And given Francis's tolerant attitudes toward birth control and homosexuals, he said the old joke — "Is the Pope Catholic?" — might no longer be rhetorical.

Limbaugh also made a political prediction: "What a gift-basket has been given to Donald (Trump)."

The initial reaction of pundits to the spat was that this was likelier to help Trump than hurt him. Catholics constituted a mere 13 per cent of the South Carolina Republican electorate last time, and they're similarly small in numbers in upcoming Super Tuesday southern states including Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia and Arkansas.

The noisy public tiff guaranteed Trump something else: more attention for him and less for his rivals as the Republican race enters a critical phase between Saturday's South Carolina vote and the March 1 motherlode of delegates.

A political reporter in South Carolina doesn't see it hurting Trump, who's already been bashing George W. Bush — deeply popular here —  over the Iraq war, to no apparent negative effect.

"Could it hurt a little bit? I guess. But nothing else has seemed to hurt him at this point," said Andy Shain, who covers politics here for South Carolina's The State newspaper.

"He's breaking all the rules where, normally in politics, you would sit here and go, 'Oh my goodness this person is not going to get elected. This person is doomed.' Not in Mr. Trump's case."

Trump himself made note of that in his speech. He pointed out that some observers predicted his demise after he started belittling Bush's record — and were wrong.

The White House, for its part, declined to play referee in this spat with the leader of the Vatican State. 

A spokesman for Barack Obama simply said the president and his would-be successor hold different values, and stopped there. Josh Earnest said: "I will ... extend to Mr. Trump the courtesy that he has not extended to the president and not use this opportunity to call into question the kind of private personal conversations that he's having with his God."

Alexander Panetta, The Canadian Press