Republican presidential candidates John Kasich, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, Carly Fiorina and Rand Paul take the stage during Republican presidential debate at Milwaukee Theatre on Tuesday. Photo: AP
After the trauma of the previous events, Tuesday night’s Republican debate hosted by the Fox Business channel and the Wall St Journal must have been a blessed relief to the candidates.
A safe space, if you will.
Last time the gang met was in Boulder, Colorado, at a confrontation orchestrated by cable business network CNBC, an outfit viewed by some on the American right as practically socialist.
Marco Rubio: all smiles at the debate. Photo: Morry Gash
The candidates were huffy even before they took the stage. Donald Trump, then leading in the polls, was given a vast dressing room with leather chairs, while Rand Paul, his staff complained, was crammed into restroom.
Things only got worse from there. The moderators, they felt, were mean. Kept on badgering them disrespectfully about apparent inconsistencies in their public positions. The current frontrunner, Ben Carson, complained of “gotcha” questions.
There was none of on Tuesday night. Softball after softball was lobbed to the eight leading candidates, who either whacked them away with a passion born of elemental ambition (in Marco Rubio’s case) or at least managed to stay awake long enough to duck them (in Dr Carson’s case.)
“And that @CNBC is how you run a debate,” the Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus tweeted after it wrapped up.
And that @CNBC is how you run a debate.
— Reince Priebus (@Reince)
November 11, 2015
This is not to say that there were not moments of revelation.
Given the time to state their positions more fully, real differences became apparent on key issues, especially immigration.
Donald Trump insisted on his plan to round up and deport the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants living in America, whatever the social and economic cost.
John Kasich, the Ohio governor whose comparatively moderate voice has resonated little in this campaign, and Jeb Bush refuted this.
“Think about the families; think about the children,” Kasich said. “Come on, folks, we know you can’t pick them up and ship them across the border. It’s a silly argument. It’s not an adult argument.”
Bush, who was supposed to have this race in the pocket and for whom political epitaphs are already being written, noted how Trump’s heated rhetoric on immigration was driving the growing Hispanic voting population into Democratic arms.
“They’re doing high-fives in the Clinton campaign right now when they hear this,” he said.
As he has throughout the campaign Rubio, the Florida senator increasingly being seen in some quarters as the man most likely, kept out of the contentious immigration debate and weighed in with his stump speech about a bright American future whenever the opportunity arose.
But he and Rand Paul, the libertarian Kentucky senator, differed sharply over foreign policy.
“Marco, how is it conservative to add a trillion-dollar expenditure for the government that you’re not paying for?” he asked the determinedly hawkish Rubio at one point.
Rubio responded, as he always does, that a powerful America makes the world a safer place, and called Paul was a “determined isolationist.”
Carson, still leading in many polls despite the holes being picked by reporters in his storied biography in recent days, emerged largely unscathed.
On foreign policy he sounded, as he often does, as though he had memorised a few handy Wikipedia pages. Moderators did not push him at all when he referred to the “lies” he said were being told about him in the media.
Trump, for so long the focal point of the Republican primary, was more subdued than usual.
At a debate watching party held in a Washington, DC, bar by young Rubio supporters, there were two theories floated about this.
Either he was turning down the vaudeville act so as to appear more presidential, or, some suggested a little optimistically he was losing interest.
“If he gets the nomination,” one man said over a Sazerac, “I’m voting for HRH.”
The others at the table shook their heads darkly.