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The unexpected death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia — and the immediate declaration from Republicans that the next president should nominate his replacement — adds even more weight to the decision voters will make in November's general election.

For months, the candidates have espoused theoretical, sometimes vague, policy proposals. Now, the prospect of President Barack Obama's successor nominating a Supreme Court justice immediately after taking office offers a more tangible way for voters to evaluate the contenders.

Candidates in both parties moved quickly to reframe the election as a referendum on the high court's future.

"Two branches of government hang in the balance, not just the presidency, but the Supreme Court," Texas Sen. Ted Cruz said in the latest GOP debate, held in South Carolina just hours after word filtered out Saturday about Scalia's death in Texas. "If we get this wrong, if we nominate the wrong candidate, the Second Amendment, life, marriage, religious liberty, every one of those hangs in the balance."

Democratic Hillary Clinton painted a similarly stark scenario.

"If any of us needed a reminder of just how important it is to take back the United States Senate and hold onto the White House, just look at the Supreme Court," Clinton said.

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