MILWAUKEE -- Winners and losers were hard to find, as the defining feature of Tuesday night’s Republican presidential debate was its lack of definition.
In stark contrast to the first three GOP face-offs, each of which carved an underlying narrative that drove subsequent news coverage, Tuesday's forum had many moments that stuck out, but few that appeared likely to have a lasting effect on the contours of the wide-open race.
Any Republicans who had hoped that the Fox Business Network debate might thin the still-sprawling GOP field will leave Milwaukee disappointed. All eight competitors on the main stage had their moments -- and so did the four who faced off in the undercard debate beforehand.
The big melee between Donald Trump and Ben Carson that many had expected never materialized. Instead, candidates who have earned much less ink as of late in this most unpredictable race for the GOP nomination -- including Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and Ohio Gov. John Kasich -- managed to stand out at least as much as either of the two front-runners in the polls.
Meanwhile, Jeb Bush, the onetime front-runner in name only whose teetering campaign has been on a death watch since his disastrous performance in last month’s CNBC debate, may not have stood out for positive or negative reasons. But Bush’s steady, if unremarkable performance was likely to calm some of his remaining top donors who were ready to abandon ship.
After a slow start, the fireworks that everyone has come to expect in 2016 GOP debates were finally set off when the moderators veered from economic policy to a topic that has divided GOP ranks like no other in the 2016 nominating fight: immigration.
Asked whether it was really feasible simply to send millions of illegal immigrants out of the country, Trump didn't stray from the script that has gotten him to this point.
“We’re a country of laws,” Trump said. “We either have a country or we don’t have a country.”
Kasich, a proponent of immigration reform, seized the opportunity to make the case that the onetime reality TV star is out of his depth.
“For the 11 million people, come on folks,” Kasich said with the exasperated tone of a suburban dad who's had just about enough of this nonsense. “We all know you can’t pick them up and ship them back across the border. It’s a silly argument.”
Trump, his face brimming with disdain for the ornery second-term governor and former House Budget Committee chairman, shot back, “I built a company worth billions and billions of dollars. I don’t have to hear from this man.”
Trump’s insults did not come as a surprise. But a somewhat unexpected development did occur at the end of this exchange: the Republican crowd at the Milwaukee theater cheered more heartily for Kasich than it did for Trump.
And they cheered yet again when Bush weighed in on behalf of immigration reform, after thanking Trump sarcastically for “allowing me to speak at the debate.”
“Twelve million illegal immigrants, to send them back … it’s just not possible,” Bush said, noting that such an endeavor would tear communities apart. “They’re doing high-fives in the Clinton campaign right now when they hear this. That’s the problem with this.”
The scattered scuffles throughout the debate notwithstanding, the contest was marked mostly by its deliberate pace and general agreement among the candidates on many economic issues.
The overall tone was established by the very first question, when moderator Neil Cavuto asked Trump, the leader in the GOP polls, whether he was sympathetic to protesters who are calling for a national minimum wage of $15 an hour.
“I can’t be, Neil,” Trump replied in an understated fashion rarely seen in public from the bombastic celebrity businessman. “I hate to say it, but we have to leave it the way it is. People have to go out and work really hard.”
Carson, who has come under fire in recent days as doubts linger about the veracity of several elements of his oft-told life story, agreed, noting that he “would not raise it.”
Asked directly about the questions that several news reports have raised regarding the validity of his inspirational biography, which has helped him to sell millions of books, Carson joked, “Thank you for not asking what I said in the tenth grade -- I appreciate that.”
“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,” Carson added. “We have to start treating people the same and finding out what they really think and what they’re made of. And people who know me know that I’m an honest person.”
Though he has been struggling for visibility and just barely made it into the main debate by the skin of his teeth, Paul was in strong form, sparring eagerly with Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) over Rubio's support for a child tax credit.
“How is it conservative to add a trillion-dollar expenditure that you’re not paying for?” Paul asked. “You cannot be a conservative if you’re going to keep promoting programs you’re not paying for.”
Rubio, for his part, put in another solid debate performance -- though perhaps he didn't stand out as much as he did in the previous contest in Colorado.
Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, meanwhile, sought to rediscover the emphatic voice that helped propel her onto the main debate stage in the first place, as she emphasized her business background.
“The secret sauce of America is innovation and entrepreneurship,” Fiorina said.
And Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) was in confident command on stage, as he always seems to be, laying into Federal Reserve policies in one particularly memorable moment that resonated with the conservative crowd here.
"Let's be clear, there is a role for the Federal Reserve,” Cruz said. “What the Fed is doing now, it is a series of philosopher kings trying to guess what's happening to the economy.”
Earlier in the evening, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal squared off in the undercard debate for candidates who failed to meet the national polling standard required to receive an invitation to the main event.
Jindal repeatedly tried to pick a fight with Christie, arguing that the Republican Party needed to nominate a true conservative in order to win next November. Christie, meanwhile, deftly pivoted time and again to keep the focus of his own attacks squarely on Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton.
“Is Washington doing that good of a job for you right now?” Christie asked. “The fact is, if you listen to Hillary Clinton, she’s made it very clear. She believes she can make decisions for you better than you can make them for yourself.”
The Republican candidates’ next debate isn’t until Dec. 15 in Las Vegas. After Tuesday night’s contest, there is little reason to believe that the field will be any thinner -- or any clearer in scope -- than it was here in Milwaukee.
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