GOP Candidates Get Down to Business in 4th Debate
MILWAUKEE — Two weeks after a debate debacle nearly sparked a mutiny among Republican presidential candidates, another meeting here Tuesday took on a more serious tone, largely bypassing personalities and flashpoints and instead exposing the candidates’ fundamental policy differences on immigration, defense spending and other issues.
The deliberate shift by the media hosts, Fox Business Network and the Wall Street Journal, to a more policy-focused and less combative format came after a CNBC debate on Oct. 28 left candidates and the Republican National Committee fuming over what they perceived as unfair questions and poor moderating.
But they were uniformly pleased Tuesday.
“And that CNBC is how you run a debate,” RNC Chairman Reince Priebus tweeted afterward.
The three senators in the running shined. For the first time in the 2015 debate series, Sen. Rand Paul seized the platform to discuss the distinguishing issues at the center of his campaign, including military spending, the role of the U.S. abroad and the defining features of conservatism. Meanwhile, Sens. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio built on their momentum from the debate two weeks ago, where both emerged as rising stars in the Republican race for president.
One of the more memorable exchanges occurred when Rubio called Paul “a committed isolationist” during a discussion on military spending. In response, Paul questioned whether spending trillions of dollars on the military is in line with conservative principles.
“You can’t be a conservative if you keep promoting programs you’re not going to pay for,” Paul said.
To which Rubio responded: “I know that the world is safer when America is the biggest military power in the world.”
A few minutes later, Cruz jumped in, seeking to claim a middle ground. “You think defending this nation is expensive?” he posed. “Try not defending it — that’s more expensive.”
Equally divisive and illuminating was a heated discussion on immigration, which began when Trump repeated his proposal to deport the 11 million undocumented immigrants currently in the country.
But Gov. John Kasich jumped in, pleading, “Come on, folks. We all know you can’t pick them up and ship them back across the border. It’s a silly argument. It is not an adult argument. It makes no sense.”
Trump shot back by invoking a program President Dwight Eisenhower launched in the 1950s, which returned Mexican immigrants deep into Mexico to discourage them from returning to America.
“Dwight Eisenhower. You don’t get nicer. You don’t get friendlier,” Trump said. “They moved 1.5 million out. We have no choice."
Jeb Bush, who has pushed for a compassionate solution to immigration reform, took issue with Trump’s response, suggesting the discussion could damage the GOP by driving Hispanic voters into Democrats’ arms.
“They're doing high-fives at the Clinton campaign when they're hearing this,” Bush said.
Brian Fallon, a spokesperson for Clinton, quickly tweeted in the affirmative. “We actually are doing high-fives right now,” he wrote.
In its content and tone, the fourth Republican debate was noticeably different than any before it. And, with fewer than three months until the first votes are cast in the Republican primary, it brought into sharp focus how candidates are maneuvering for position and tweaking their styles.
For Bush, whose campaign has faltered in recent weeks amid anemic support and donor doubts, the Milwaukee venue was an important proving ground. In the CNBC debate, Bush had sought to directly attack Rubio for his Senate attendance record; on Tuesday, he backed off of that tack. Meanwhile, Bush seemed intent to appear energized in his responses.
Ben Carson, who spent the past week swatting down media reports about the veracity of his personal story, confronted the issue head-on Tuesday night: “The fact of the matter is, we should vet all candidates. I have no problem with being vetted. What I do have a problem with is being lied about and then putting that out there as truth,” he said, to warm applause.
And at the center of the debate stage once again was Trump, who remains with Carson one of the frontrunners in the race. But if Trump is usually a bastion of bombast, he appeared Tuesday markedly more measured — delving deeper into policy than usual, and resisting personal attacks except against Kasich, perhaps in a bid to appear more presidential.
"I'm becoming very diplomatic,” Trump reflected later in an interview with Neil Cavuto, one of the moderators.
Earlier in the evening, the debate’s undercard round featured just four candidates: Chris Christie, Mike Huckabee, Bobby Jindal and Rick Santorum. Much of the pre-debate speculation focused on how Christie would react to being bumped off the main stage for the first time due to lagging national poll numbers.
From the outset, it became clear the New Jersey governor’s strategy was to stay focused on one opponent — Hillary Clinton — and by extension, prove his own electability. Time after time, Christie steered his answers back to an attack on the former secretary of state and likely Democratic presidential nominee.
A noticeably aggressive Bobby Jindal called out Mike Huckabee over his spending record in Arkansas, but Christie came to Huckabee’s defense.
“Let me just say this in response to this back-and-forth,” Christie said. “If you think that Mike Huckabee won't be the kind of president who will cut back spending, or Chris Christie, or John Kasich, wait until you see what Hillary Clinton will do to this country and how she will drown us in debt. She is the real adversary tonight, and we'd better stay focused as Republicans on her.”
Later, a lengthy exchange between Jindal and Christie over his record in New Jersey ended with a particularly pointed jab by Jindal: “Chris, look. I'll give you your ribbon for participation, and a juice box, but in the real world, it's about results.”
The normally pugilistic governor of New Jersey refused to take the bait, letting the insult go unanswered.
Huckabee and Santorum both received ample time to explain their economic plans, but in the end were largely overshadowed by the dust-up between Christie and Jindal, which continued even after the debate.
Surrounded by cameras and reporters in the “spin” room, Jindal called Christie a “big government” Republican and accused him of trying to hide behind attacks on Hillary Clinton because he “couldn’t defend his record.”
Mike DuHaime, a senior member of Christie’s team, brushed off the remark, calling the debate a “clear cut” victory for his candidate and praising his ability to stay above the fray.
Absent from either debate stage Tuesday were Sen. Lindsey Graham and former Gov. George Pataki, both of whom had previously appeared in the undercard round but were booted this time due to low polling. Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore, who has not qualified for the past two debates, once again did not qualify for Tuesday’s meeting.
But Graham and Gilmore sought other avenues to make their voices heard. Gilmore participated in a live-stream event hosted by IJ Review, which at one point drew just 32 viewers, while Graham posted his reactions to the social media platform Sidewire.
Graham did not watch the undercard debate, he told RealClearPolitics, but he offered some advice based on his own sub-optimal experience with the format.
“Don’t win it, because they’ll kick you off if you do,” Graham joked. "The kiss of death is to win the undercard debate.”