Republicans sparred over economic issues and immigration Tuesday, a more expansive exchange that allowed the candidates to speak in more depth and likely allowed most to bolster their appeal without substantively changing the contours of the presidential race.
Ben Carson, battered in recent days by news reports questioning various claims he’s made, turned a question into how he’s being vetted into an attack on Hillary Clinton.
Marco Rubio, who received accolades after the last debate, had another good night but found himself defending his conservative credentials.
Jeb Bush needed a standout performance after slumping polls, but he didn’t get one, scoring the best point on an issue that his base hates.
And Chris Christie, demoted from the prime-time debate by sub-par polling numbers, dominated the earlier “happy hour” debate – returning again and again to attacks on Clinton amid a spirited debate over taxes and spending, particularly on entitlement programs. “Hillary Clinton’s coming for your wallet, everybody,” he said.
After the chaos of the last debate, the fourth Republican presidential debate largely stuck to its focus on the economy, featuring detailed explanations of the candidates’ tax proposals. They mostly agreed that the U.S. should not raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour.
But stark differences emerged on how to handle illegal immigration and how large a national defense program the U.S. can afford, a reminder that the race remains wide open and the competition is intensifying as the candidates race toward caucus and primary voting early next year.
The candidates got more aggressive as the debate went on, interrupting and criticizing each other as they looked to gain attention in a crowded field. It was the last debate for five weeks.
Donald Trump: “There is nothing that we do now to win. We don’t win anymore. Our taxes are too high.”
Marco Rubio: “For the life of me, I don't know why we have stigmatized vocational education. Welders make more money than philosophers. We need more welders and less philosophers.”
Carly Fiorina: “We must take our government back.”
Ben Carson. “I have no problem with being vetted. What I do have a problem with is being lied about.”
Ted Cruz: “If Republicans join Democrats as the party of amnesty, we will lose.”
The candidates clashed heatedly over Trump’s proposal to deport 11 million immigrants in the nation illegally.
Bush and Kasich ripped Trump’s proposal, saying it isn’t practical and is damaging to the Republican Party.
Bush said mass deportations “would tear families and communities apart” and argued that just considering the idea hurts Republicans. “They’re doing high gives in the Clinton campaign when they hear this,” he said.
Kasich called Trump’s plan “silly” and said it was “not an adult conversation.” He said those here without proper paperwork and clean records should pay penalties and get a chance to stay in the U.S. “Come on folks, we all know you can’t pick them up and ship them off across the border,” he said.
Trump shot back: “I built an unbelievable company worth billions and billions of dollars, I don’t have to hear from this man.”
Rubio and Rand Paul clashed heatedly over the size of the U.S. military, with Rubio endorsing rebuilding the military and dubbing Paul a “committed isolationist.”
“I believe the world is a stronger and better place when the United States is the strongest military power in the world,” Rubio said.
Paul questioned how conservative it was to add a trillion dollars to the federal budget that was not paid for with corresponding tax increases: “You cannot be a conservative if you keep promoting programs that you aren’t going to pay for.”
The former Florida governor was more aggressive after flat previous debates. He spoke with authority on several policies and criticized Clinton, but he still complained about his lack of speaking time, a strategy that did not work well for him during the last debate. He needed an outright win – all the more important since the candidates won’t debate again for five more weeks – but his campaign is unlikely to gain traction.
Surging in the polls but attracting more scrutiny by the news media, Carson kept his poise and scored when he turned a question about his own vetting into a complaint about Clinton telling her daughter and the public a different story after the 2012 fatal terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya. “Where I come from,” he said, “that’s called a lie.”
Cruz again turned in a strong performance with substantive answers and tough rhetoric against the Democratic candidates. He pledged to abolish several federal agencies, including the Internal Revenue Service and the Departments of Commerce, Energy and Housing and Urban Development.
Fiorina, a business executive, put in another solid debate performance, but it’s unlikely that will vault her to the top tier. She demonstrated again a detailed grasp of domestic policies, with ease on issues such as budgeting and health care, and a focus on President Barack Obama’s record. But she did it at times by interrupting others, and Trump at one point asked out loud why she kept interrupting everyone else.
Kasich criticized his opponents, particularly Trump for wanting to deport 11 million immigrants, and aggressively interrupted others to get more speaking time. The two-term governor of Ohio tried again to use his resume in an economically stable state to gain traction by portraying himself as a leader who has balanced budgets. At one point, the Republican audience booed him after he criticized Cruz for saying he would let a massive bank like Bank of America fail without government aid.
Paul, the Kentucky senator who joked with reporters ahead of the debate that he was hoping “the rest of them will drop out and just let me be their nominee,” sought to regain some traction. He forcefully challenged Rubio for multitrillion-dollar proposals he said were not conservative, and he criticized proposals for a no-fly zone over Syria, saying it could led to shooting down Russian planes and another costly war in Iraq.
Rubio continued to pitch his parents’ story as the American Dream as he joined his fellow Republicans with opposing raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, saying it would “make people more expensive than machines.” He spoke authoritatively on a variety of subjects but was forced to defend his economic and defense proposals against attacks by Paul, saying he was defending the family and the country.
Trump looked to regain the spotlight and show a bit of presidential gravitas to broaden his appeal beyond his base, but it’s unclear he did that. He took a sober approach from the start and held his own under questioning about deporting immigrants.
At the last debate, candidates bashed the moderators and journalists in general, even more than each other, garnering huge applause and rave reviews. This time again the word “media” came up again frequently – and not in a positive way.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misstated the number of immigrants estimated to be in the nation illegally. It is 11 million.