MILWAUKEE — The leading Republican presidential candidates clashed sharply over immigration policy, military spending and other intractable and emotional issues in a debate here Tuesday night, bringing into sharp relief the party’s fault line between rigid conservatism and mainstream practicality.
The two-hour debate spotlighted the rift between the outsider candidates and establishment governors over how strictly to enforce immigration laws and whether to provide a pathway to legal status for the country’s more than 11 million undocumented immigrants or deport them.
It also revived a long-simmering dispute over the size and role of the U.S. military, with Sen. Rand Paul (Kentucky) warning of the potential adverse fiscal effects of increased defense spending and Sens. Marco Rubio (Florida) and Ted Cruz (Texas) advocating a more muscular American military presence in the world.
Overall, however, it was a relatively cerebral affair. In a marked departure from the three previous debates, Tuesday’s questions prodded the candidates to explain their positions on such substantive issues as tax policy, the minimum wage and trade treaties, rather than draw contrasts with each other.
Little attention was paid to the personal attacks that have shaped the race in recent weeks. On the campaign trail, billionaire Donald Trump has harshly assailed rival Ben Carson as the retired neurosurgeon rose in the polls, but Trump refrained from hitting his fellow front-runner on the debate stage.
Similarly, former Florida governor Jeb Bush, whose attack on Rubio backfired at the Oct. 28 debate, did not strike his onetime protege on Tuesday night. Instead, he focused his rhetoric on President Obama and Democratic front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton, delivering a few punchy answers in a performance that was not dominant but was more energetic than his earlier lackluster showings.
A lengthy discussion of immigration stood out as a proxy for a debate over how Republicans can win back the White House after eight years in the wilderness: under the banner of pure and principled conservatism, or with a moderated platform designed to broaden the GOP’s appeal to Latinos and other minorities.
Trump forcefully defended the controversial proposal that fueled his candidacy since summer, in which he would deport all undocumented immigrants and construct a wall along the border with Mexico to keep them out.
“We are a country of laws, we need borders, we will have a wall, the wall will be built, the wall will be successful and if you think walls don’t work, all you have to do is ask Israel,” said the reality television star. “The wall will work, properly done. Believe me.”
That drew a quick retort from Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who had been spoiling for a fight and repeatedly interrupted the questioning of other candidates to give his opinions.
“For the 11 million people, come on folks, we all know we can’t pick them up and ship them across the border,” Kasich said. “It’s a silly argument. It’s not an adult argument.”
Trump then interjected with a taunt at Bush: “You should let Jeb speak.”
And the former Florida governor did just that, arguing that deporting illegal immigrants is in conflict with American values and would tear families and communities apart. Bush warned of the electoral consequences should the GOP nominee campaign with Trump’s position.
“They’re doing high-fives in the Clinton campaign right now when they hear this,” Bush said. “That’s the problem with this. We have to win the presidency, and the way you win the presidency is to have practical plans.”
Soon after, Brian Fallon, a Hillary Rodham Clinton campaign spokesman, tweeted, “We actually are doing high-fives right now.”
Cruz, however, sided with Trump. “If Republicans join Democrats as the party of amnesty, we will lose,” the senator from Texas said.
Cruz said that for many voters, illegal immigration is “a very personal economic issue” and added: “We’re tired of being told it’s ‘anti-immigrant.’ It’s offensive. I am the son of an immigrant who came legally from Cuba to seek the American dream, and we can embrace legal immigration while believing in the rule of law.”
Tuesday’s debate, the fourth so far in the Republican race, was hosted by Fox Business Network and the Wall Street Journal before a live audience at a historic theater in downtown Milwaukee.
There were eight candidates in the main debate – the smallest group to share the big stage so far – as national polling averages winnowed the top tier. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee were relegated for the first time to an earlier undercard debate, where both faced sharp attacks from Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal over their records on fiscal policy and other issues.
For the moderators, the event brought added scrutiny in the wake of the Oct. 28 debate in Boulder, Colorado, which was a chaotic affair. CNBC’s moderators were harshly criticized for the tone and personal nature of their questioning, and the candidates felt they were being baited to attack each other rather than asked about substance.
From the outset of Tuesday night’s debate, the moderators sought to set a different tone. Co-moderator Neil Cavuto said the focus of the debate would be “the economy and what each of you would do to improve it. No more, no less.”
The first questions were about Democratic proposals to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour. There are varying views within the Republican Party about the minimum wage, with 2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney among those supporting an increase, which polls show is widely popular.
But Trump and Carson said they would not raise it, arguing an increase would inhibit job growth.
“Taxes too high; wages too high,” Trump said. “We’re not going to be able to compete against the world. I hate to say it, but we have to leave it the way it is. People have to go out, they have to work really hard and have to get into that upper stratum.”
Carson said, “Every time we raise the minimum wage, the number of jobless people increases,” especially among black people. He said the better question is, “How do we allow people to ascend the ladder of opportunity rather than how do we give them everything and keep them dependent?”
Kasich, who has raised the minimum wage in Ohio, took a more moderate approach. “Economic theory is fine,” he said, “but you know what? People need help.”
Later in the evening, an extended series of questions about the candidates’ tax plans sparked a fight between Rubio and Paul over the size of the military and defense budget.
“I know Rand is a committed isolationist. I’m not,” Rubio said, earning loud cheers from the crowd. “. . .I know that the world is a safer and better place when America is the strongest military power in the world.”
Paul persisted, warning that the country could ill afford to spend more money on the military: “I want a strong national defense. But I don’t want us to be bankrupt.”
Cruz then interjected, siding with Rubio: “You think defending this nation is expensive? Try not defending it. That’s a lot more expensive.”
Carly Fiorina also delivered tough lines about the military and the United States’ role in Syria, but she also accused Trump of bluster when he talked about his past associations with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
At one point, Trump snapped: “Why does she keep interrupting everybody?”
The crowd booed loudly, but unlike in previous debates, Fiorina did not respond to Trump.
Meanwhile, Carson — who has built a powerful following among grass-roots conservatives with his soft-spoken approach — faced virtually no scrutiny from the moderators or fellow candidates over the veracity of his personal narrative, which has been the subject of recent media investigations.
When Cavuto asked Carson whether the scrutiny was engulfing his campaign, Carson seemed pleased to have the chance to clear the air.
“Thank you for not asking me what I said in the tenth grade,” Carson said. “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 added, “People who know me know that I’m an honest person.”