MILWAUKEE — Republican presidential candidates, in a rollicking but substantive debate, sparred Tuesday night over who had the best prescriptions for uplifting the middle class, bolstering the economy, and reforming the country's immigration laws.
While a few moments were heated, the debate showcased in clear terms divisions within the large field over tax policy, the role of the US military in the world, and whether the government should bail out failing banks.
Personal attacks that had marked earlier debates once again flared — "Why does she keep interrupting everybody?" businessman Donald Trump said of former Hewlett-Packard chief executive Carly Fiorina, to boos from the crowd — but mostly the debate sponsored by Fox Business Network and the Wall Street Journal engendered policy discussions that have often been lacking in previous encounters.
Trump and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, both of whom had been near the top of national polls, faded into the background for long stretches as more experienced politicians such as a trio of senators — Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, and Ted Cruz — seized the opportunity to show their deeper knowledge of policy detail.
Former Florida governor Jeb Bush, who needed a big night, had a somewhat stronger performance but once again seemed hesitant and uncertain. The performance did not appear sufficient to jump-start his struggling campaign.
The debate set the tone for the remaining days before the holidays make it more difficult for the candidates to drive their message. The contenders now face five weeks until the next GOP debate and less than three months before voters head to the polls.
Paul, a libertarian-leaning, first-term senator from Kentucky who had been lackluster in previous debates, grabbed the spotlight by vigorously challenging Rubio over his willingness to expand child tax credits while increasing spending on the military.
"You get something that looks to me not very conservative," Paul said.
Rubio responded, "I know that Rand is a committed isolationist. I'm not."
Paul continued pushing back.
"Can you be a conservative, and be liberal on military spending?" he asked.
The candidates also engaged in a vigorous debate over immigration reform, with Trump reiterating his plan to deport immigrants and build a wall along the Mexican border. Governor John Kasich of Ohio called Trump's plan unrealistic and inhumane.
"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's not an adult argument," Kasich said.
"I've built an unbelievable company worth billions and billions of dollars," Trump responded. "I don't have to hear from this man."
With Bush going for a long stretch without getting a word in, Trump pleaded with the moderators, "You should let Jeb speak."
"Thank you Donald, for allowing me to speak at the debate, that's really nice of you. What a generous man you are," Bush said sardonically before ridiculing Trump's immigration rhetoric.
"They're doing high-fives in the Clinton campaign right now when they hear this," Bush said.
Bush, whose wife is from Mexico and who speaks fluent Spanish, has a plan to offer legal status to undocumented immigrants after they meet a list of conditions such as learning English and paying back taxes.
Cruz took a harder line, saying that plans like Bush's amount to amnesty.
"Try going illegally to another country. Try going to China . . . see what they do," he said. "It is not compassionate to say we're not going to enforce the laws."
The debate took place against a backdrop of a deeply unsettled nominating contest, one in which candidates who seemed like long shots have enjoyed a long ride atop the polls while establishment candidates have floundered.
Organizers narrowed the field for the debate, with eight candidates on the stage, after complaints that previous forums were unwieldy and chaotic.
The race has recently been dominated by Carson and Trump, two outsiders with completely different backgrounds and dispositions.
Carson has been moving ahead of Trump in national polls and in Iowa, the site of the nation's first caucuses.
But Carson has been under intense scrutiny over whether he has embellished details of his inspirational life story. So far he has largely laid the blame on the media, saying he refuses to let the issues distract him.
"First of all, thank you for not asking me what I said in the 10th grade, I appreciate that," Carson said to moderator Neil Cavuto, who asked about some of the inconsistencies.
"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," Carson added, without adding detail. "People who know me know that I'm an honest person."
Although Carson's rivals have intensified their challenges of his claims — Trump has gone so far to say he has a "pathological disease" — none mentioned them during the debate.
Carson did outline in more detail some of his tax policies, saying that he would eliminate the popular mortgage and charitable giving deductions from the tax code while implementing a rate that everyone would pay, regardless of income level.
Bush has been uninspiring in the past three debates and on Tuesday needed a breakout moment.
In the previous debate, he made what some supporters considered an ill-advised attempt to criticize Rubio over his missed votes in the Senate.
"I got about four minutes last debate," Bush interjected at one point Tuesday night. "I'm going to get my question this time." He has reoriented his campaign, focusing far more on New Hampshire and attempting to inject new urgency in both his speech and his staff. And he changed up his debate preparation, choosing to play bocce ball in the hours before the debate.
One of his stronger moments came in challenging Trump's approach to the Middle East, saying he was wrong to leave it up to President Vladimir Putin of Russia to fight the Islamic State.
"Donald is wrong on this. He is absolutely wrong on this," Bush said. He compared Trump's approach to moving the pieces around on a board game. "Like Monopoly or something," Bush said, probably meaning Risk.
Cruz has also had several solid debate performances as he continues a steady rise in the polls amid a campaign largely focused on Iowa. Fiorina has struggled to capitalize on her earlier debate performances.
But she was aggressive, particularly against Trump, and demonstrated her strong and determined confidence.
Toward the latter part of the debate, several candidates were asked what he would do if a large bank failed, and whether he would support a government bailout along the lines of the one approved by Congress in 2008.
The exchanges among candidates were among the most pointed of the evening.
Cruz said that he would not bail out the banks, which spurred Kasich to question whether the senator had the background and disposition to handle a crisis as an executive. The Ohio governor, who also was a senior executive at Lehman Brothers, said that not stepping in would hurt small-time investors.
"When a bank is ready to go under, and depositors are ready to lose their life savings, you just don't say, 'We believe in philosophical concerns,' " Kasich said, without saying specifically that he supported a bailout — which is deeply unpopular among conservatives.
Before the prime-time debate, four candidates who did not meet the 2.5 percent polling threshold — Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, and former senator Rick Santorum — faced off against one another.
The debate was marked by an aggressive move from Jindal, who challenged Christie's record as being insufficiently conservative.
Christie, who has been gaining ground, was uncharacteristically calm and had a message that seemed geared toward New Hampshire, the state where he has spent the most time. He also repeatedly criticized Hillary Clinton, using the undercard debate to stand out from the other candidates.
"The bottom line is, believe me, Hillary Clinton is coming for your wallet, everybody," Christie said.
Two candidates, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and former New York governor George Pataki, did not meet the 1 percent polling threshold to make it onto the undercard debate stage.