MILWAUKEE (AP) — 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.
A SPLIT ON WHAT TO DO ABOUT IMMIGRATION
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 more stark 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.