A Republican debate that was supposed to focus on the presidential candidates' economic policies demonstrated their close agreement on the fiscal front but underscored foreign policy rifts that are likely to play out through the 2016 campaign — and gave renewed life to candidates struggling to find their footing in a persistently unpredictable contest.
If the Tuesday night debate, aired on the Fox Business Network, was supposed to highlight the strength of real estate mogul Donald Trump, it did not. If it was supposed to dispense permanently with the candidacy of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, it did not. If it was supposed to deliver the same fireworks that exploded in a controversial CNBC debate two weeks ago, it did not.
As a result, yet another thing the debate probably did not do was scramble the GOP race. The front-runners, Trump and former neurosurgeon Ben Carson, did not shine — Trump came under withering fire on foreign policy, particularly — but their strengths rest on their outsider status rather than on policy proficiency or debating prowess.
Underneath them, however, movement was afoot. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz both had a second-straight strong showing, each weaving his personal, immigrant-heavy story into firm recitations of his priorities.
Bush made a far better presentation than in past debates. But he, along with Ohio Gov. John Kasich, did so in part by embracing policy prescriptions not generally shared by their party — a risky move in the primaries albeit potentially helpful should either man make it to the general election.
The debate, the fourth since late summer, may have been the best opportunity in many weeks for the trailing candidates to make up ground on Trump and Carson. The next televised meeting among the candidates is Dec. 15 in Las Vegas. By then, the holidays will likely capture the interests of voters, vastly complicating candidates' ability to significantly improve their standing.
In keeping with the race's tendency to surprise, many of the controversies that arose in recent days went nearly unremarked upon during the two-hour debate, which took place in Milwaukee. Carson had spent the previous week under scrutiny he had not previously seen, with news organizations raising questions about biographical details that have formed the basis of his character-based campaign.
Apart from an early mention, in which he said he had no problem being vetted but did have a problem with "being lied about," the contretemps was absent. The debate moderators did not press Carson on the details.
Bush's allies had suggested before the debate that they were ready to attack Rubio, but that too ended up largely absent from the debate, as the two candidates most often took the same side, often against Trump.
Bush came into the debate under heavy pressure to persuade Republican voters and his own waffling supporters that he remains a plausible candidate. After the CNBC debate, in which his attempt at criticizing Rubio's Senate voting history boomeranged, Bush acknowledged he needed to improve his debating skills. Improvement was apparent throughout.
After Trump renewed his opposition to illegal immigration and his desire to send back to their native lands millions of people who are in the country without proper papers, both Kasich and Bush brushed his views aside. Bush called Trump's plan "not possible" and said it ran counter to American values.
"They're doing high-fives in the Clinton campaign right now when they hear this," said Bush, who has in the past supported both a path to citizenship for those in the country illegally and, more recently, a path to legal status.
"That's the problem with this. We have to win the presidency," he said. "And the way you win the presidency is to have practical plans."
But that view is not held by the majority of the conservative Republicans who are heavily represented in the party's caucuses and primaries, making the approach a dangerous one for Bush. In a showing of the deftness which has marked Rubio's debate appearances, the senator used the conversation as a way to pivot toward a discussion of the nation's changing employment needs. He did not address his own past support — and work in Congress for — a comprehensive change in immigration policy.
Bush and the other candidates also rose to counter Trump when questions turned to foreign policy. Trump, speaking about Syria, offered a shrugging dismissal of concerns about the actions of Russia's Vladimir Putin, saying, "I got to know him very well because we were both on '60 Minutes' — we were stablemates — and we did very well that night."
With far more vigor than he had shown in the previous three debates, Bush declared that Trump was "absolutely wrong on this."
"We're not going to be the world's policeman, but we sure as heck better be the world's leader," Bush said. Former Hewlett-Packard Chief Executive Carly Fiorina added her own bracing condemnation of Putin.
As those candidates disagreed on a conflict over American involvement that has ratcheted upward since the presidency of Bush's brother, George W. Bush, so too did Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and Rubio.
The two senators angled over Rubio's proposal for extensive spending on the military. Paul declared that it was impossible to be "a conservative" while proposing spending on the military and on child care — as Rubio has also proposed — while not cutting spending.
By contrast, the feuds were far less significant when it came to economic policy. All of the candidates questioned proposed the repeal of the president's healthcare plan and forwarded their own tax plans, which were generally similar.
"Each one of those tax plans is better than the mess that we have right now," Trump said.
Tuesday's debate was the first to limit the top debate tier to eight candidates, rather than 10. The second tier of candidates — New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum — was in some ways a livelier contest. All seemed driven by desperation, with Jindal often trying to bait Christie.
"I'll give you a ribbon for participation and a juice box," Jindal told Christie at one point.
Christie, famous for his captured-on-video harangues against schoolteachers and everyday New Jerseyans, kept his focus on Hillary Rodham Clinton, the Democratic front-runner.
"Hillary Clinton is coming for your wallet, everybody," he said. "Don't worry about Huckabee or Jindal. Worry about her."
For more on politics, follow @cathleendecker.
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