MILWAUKEE — The fourth Republican debate of the 2016 presidential election had the distinct feel of, well, a real debate.
After Republicans widely panned the moderators at the previous debate for creating a circus-like atmosphere, the candidates -- eight, the smallest group yet -- had far deeper discussions about their policy plans, particularly on taxes, military spending and immigration.
Taking the stage in Milwaukee were celebrity businessman Donald Trump and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, the leaders of most recent polls, and Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Ohio Gov. John Kasich.
As he has in other recent debates, Trump seemed to fade from the spotlight at times. He also seemed to embrace a role as a referee of sorts, complaining that Kasich was taking too much time from Bush and exclaiming about Fiorina, “Why does she keep interrupting?”
Here are some other takeaways from the Milwaukee matchup.
This debate showcased a significant policy debate within the Republican Party when it comes to immigration. Trump and Cruz advocated vociferously for deporting an estimated 11 million immigrants who are in the country illegally, while Kasich and Bush called that impractical.
Cruz said Republicans will lose the presidential race if they offer “amnesty” to illegal immigrants. “We can embrace legal immigration while believing in the rule of law,” he said. Earlier, Trump had reiterated his promise to build a secure wall along the U.S. border with Mexico. “We are a country of laws,” he said. “We need borders. We will build a wall.”
While a popular position with some of the most conservative Republican primary voters, Kasich and Bush argued that’s not a practical position for the GOP nominee to take into the general election next November.
“For the 11 million people, c’mon folks. We all know you can’t pick them up and ship them across the border,” Kasich said -- a line that drew enthusiastic applause from the audience. Bush put it in starker terms: “They’re doing high-fives in the Clinton campaign when they’re hearing this.”
Indeed, Democratic front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton’s spokesman Brian Fallon wrote on Twitter about the exchange, “We actually are doing high-fives right now.”
One person who wasn’t asked to weigh in -- and didn’t insert himself into the discussion -- was Rubio, who has had to walk back his involvement in a failed Senate plan to dramatically overhaul the country’s immigration policies with a plan that included a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, which some Republicans decried as unfair amnesty.
Rubio has been attacked by Bush and Trump in the past as an absentee lawmaker, yet it was Paul who hit the Florida senator the hardest during the debate.
Paul slammed Rubio’s plan to expand tax credits for families with children, which Paul said amounts to a new expensive welfare program. “We have to decide what is conservative and what isn’t,” Paul said.
And a Paul-Rubio exchange about military spending highlighted another policy divide within the party. “Can you be a conservative and be liberal in military spending?” Paul asked, pointing to Rubio’s plans to expand the military.
Rubio fired back: “I know that Rand is a committed isolationist. I’m not.”
Cruz interjected that there’s a way to “split the difference.” He said, to audience applause: “You think defending this nation is expensive? Try not defending it.”
But Cruz said he would offset any increase in military spending by cutting in other areas, offering up the federal subsidy for the sugar industry as a specific example. Cruz didn’t say it on the debate stage, but Rubio has defended that subsidy -- which greatly benefits the Florida-based industry.
Kasich elbowed his way into the debate again and again, saying at one point, “Look, I hate to crash the party.” Kasich and Cruz had a testy exchange late in the debate on whether big banks should be propped up with federal help as they fail. Cruz said flatly that he would not, for example, give the Bank of America bailout money even if it were teetering on the brink.
Kasich took another approach, saying he wouldn’t ignore people who have their life savings in these banks. He said executive experience matters, arguing that “on-the-job training for president of the United States doesn’t work.”
Bush noted early on that he only had four minutes of speaking time in the last debate. Although he still wasn’t the chattiest candidate on stage, he did make use of the longer response times moderators allowed this time and called out Clinton as out of touch on the economy.
“Hillary Clinton has said that Barack Obama’s policies get an ‘A.’ Really?” Bush asked. “One in 10 people aren’t working or have given up looking for work, one in seven people live in poverty, and one in five are on food stamps. That is not an ‘A.’ It may be the best that Hillary Clinton can do, but it’s not the best America can do.”
Coming into the debate, Carson was expected to face tough questions about certain discrepancies in his life story, which has served as a point of inspiration long before he became a presidential candidate. Yet moderators touched only lightly on that topic.
“I have no problem with being vetted,” Carson said. “What I do have a problem with is being lied about and putting it out there as truth.”
He argued he’d been scrutinized more than Clinton, successfully pivoting the discussion from himself to the Democratic front-runner. “People who know me,” he said, “know that I’m an honest person.”