A feisty Jeb Bush sought to regain his footing in Tuesday’s Republican presidential debate, taking advantage of a policy-focused debate to detail positions on the economy and immigration while casting himself as the strongest general election opponent for Democratic front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Mild-mannered Ben Carson also sought to steady his campaign, swatting away questions about the veracity of his celebrated biography detailing his rise from poverty to become an acclaimed neurosurgeon.
“We should vet all candidates,” Carson said. “I have no problem with being vetted. What I do have a problem with is being lied about.”
The debate, the last for the GOP until mid-December, could help shape the course of the campaign into the winter as voters begin to pay more attention to the White House race. The televised contest opened with a narrow focus on economic policy, with moderators from Fox Business News allowing the candidates to deliver lengthy answers and avoiding attempts to get them to engage with one another.
Bush entered the debate in need of a strong performance to ease the anxiety of donors and other supporters. He sharply criticized Clinton for defending President Barack Obama’s economic policies, saying the nation must do better.
Bush also stood by his call for immigration policies that would allow some of those in the U.S. illegally to find a path to legal states, while criticizing front-runner Donald Trump’s call for mass deportations as an impractical plan that would hand Democrats a talking point as they seek to appeal to Hispanic voters.
“They’re doing high fives in the Clinton campaign when they’re hearing this,” Bush said.
Former Gov. Bush avoided tangling with fellow Floridian Marco Rubio, a shift in strategy from his poor performance in the last debate. Still, Rubio faced criticism from some rivals about whether he’s a true conservative given his calls for a child tax care credit and increasing military spending.
“We can’t even have an economy if we’re not safe,” said Rubio, a first-term senator enjoying recent momentum for his White House bid.
Rubio’s call for increased military spending was backed by Trump, the real estate mogul who has led the GOP field for months. While Trump has been a frequent critic of his rivals on the campaign trail, he looked to make his mark in the policy discussions, including opposing a new Asia-Pacific trade deal supported by many Republicans.
“I love trade,” Trump said. “I’m a free trader 100 percent. But we need smart people making the deals.”
Trump’s grip on the GOP field has been challenged in recent weeks by Carson, another outsider. As Carson has risen in preference polls, however, he has faced a flurry of questions about his biography, which has been central to his connection with voters.
While pieces of Carson’s background had been challenged earlier in the campaign, the questions ballooned last week after CNN reported it could not find friends or confidants to corroborate the story, told in his widely read autobiography, of his unsuccessfully trying to stab a close friend when he was a teenager.
Later in the week, Politico examined Carson’s claim of having been offered a scholarship to attend the U.S. Military Academy, and The Wall Street Journal said it could not confirm anecdotes told by Carson about his high school and college years.
The two-hour debate lurched to a slow start, with the candidates fielding questions about a variety of economic policies. Most stuck to their standard talking points and largely went unchallenged by moderators.
Drawing a contrast with Democrats, the candidates voiced opposition to raising the federal minimum wage, casting it as an impediment to job growth.
“If you raise the minimum you’re going to make people more expensive than a machine,” Rubio said.
Trump concurred, saying “We cannot do this if we’re going to compete with the rest of the world.”
Clinton has called for raising the minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $12. Her chief rival, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, has backed an increase to $15.
Also on the stage Tuesday were Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, businesswoman Carly Fiorina, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul.
Missing from the lineup were New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. Both were dropped from the top-tier debate with low poll numbers in national surveys, sparking criticism for the way networks hosting the debates have determined participation.
Christie and Huckabee instead appeared in an undercard debate, along with Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum. Christie tried to cast himself as well-prepared for a general election, focusing more on Clinton than fellow Republicans.
“She believes she can make decisions for you better than you can make them for yourself,” Christie said of Clinton.
Cruz pitches flat tax
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz says he wants to reduce the number of federal regulators, who he says descend “like locusts” and hurt economic growth.
Cruz is touting his plan for a 10 percent flat personal income tax and a 16 percent business tax during the fourth Republican presidential debate in Milwaukee. He calls his proposal “bold and simple.”
Cruz calls economic growth under President Barack Obama “a disaster” but says “it doesn’t have to be.”
He says the economy can be turned around, adding, “We have done it before and with leadership we can do it again.”