The stage was smaller. The rhetoric was milder. But the broad contours of the presidential race were somehow brought into sharper relief by an evening that avoided the controversies of previous debates.
Talk of immigration, foreign policy and bank bailouts was a throwback for a Republican Party that’s been rocked by sideshows, surprises, and campaign drama. As comfort zones go, though, this was more familiar territory for a GOP that’s seeking its own identity while reaching out to a changing electorate.
Donald Trump was the center of some of the most important action of the night, his argument for building a border wall and forcing undocumented immigrants out of the country sparked a debate where the moderators weren’t even looking for one.
“We either have a country or we don’t have a country,” Trump said of the need to “send people out” who came to the US illegally.
His vision for the country, of course, is not unanimous inside his party. It earned Trump a Jeb Bush-John Kasich tag team in a series of exchanges that will resonate throughout the primary season.
“Think about the families. Think about the children,” Kasich said. “For the 11 million people, come on folks, we all know you can’t pick them up and ship them back across the border.” Trump asked that Bush be allowed to answer.
Bush had perhaps the most on the line. The brother and son of presidents, he was widely viewed as the early front-runner in the race and has raised enormous sums of money for his super PAC. But he’s proved to be an awkward campaigner and has sometimes appeared out of step with a Republican electorate eager to voice its frustration with the political class. While Bush still showed signs of nerves, he was more confident and at ease than in previous debates.
Bush tried to use the Trump exchange to get some of his campaign groove back, delivering a reminder of why he’s often said he’s running. “It’s just not possible. And it’s just not embracing American values,” Bush said of Trump’s plans. “We have to win the presidency, and the way you win the presidency is to have practical plans.”
Marco Rubio, playing a different game that doesn’t involve talking much about immigration where he can, chose not to engage.
But Ted Cruz who, like Rubio, wasn’t even asked about immigration jumped in.
“If Republicans join Democrats as the party of amnesty, we will lose,” Cruz said.
Rubio reserved his fire for Rand Paul, whose questioning of GOP foreign policy dogma of the last generation left him lonely, yet speaking to a not insignificant portion of voters.
“I know that Rand is a committed isolationist. I’m not,” Rubio said.
“How is it conservative to add a trillion dollars in military expenditures?” Paul shot back.
Added Cruz: “You think defending this nation is expensive, try not defending it.”
And Bush took on Trump after he said he was glad the Russians were taking a leading role in fighting ISIS in Syria.
“We’re not going to be the world’s policeman. But we sure as heck better be the world’s leader,” Bush said.
Kasich and businesswoman Carly Fiorina, two lower polling candidates in search of a breakout moment, repeatedly sought to interject themselves into the discussion. Trump sought to shut Fiorina down at one point, drawing jeers from the crowd when he said, “Why does she keep interrupting everybody?”
Ben Carson, the retired neurosurgeon who is now in a virtual tie for the lead with businessman Donald Trump, was expected to face his toughest nationally-televised moment on Tuesday night on the Fox Business channel. Instead, he skated.
The lone moderator question on Carson’s penchant for inaccurate personal tales was the softest of softballs: Are you worried all this has hurt your campaign? Carson answered with aplomb.
“Well, first of all, thank you not asking me what I said in the 10th grade. I appreciate that,” he said to laughter from the Milwaukee crowd. He added: “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.”
He then pivoted to Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton, calling her a liar, and that was that. The seven others on stage, wary of alienating Republican voters with a soft spot for the soft-spoken man with the inspirational up-by-the-bootstraps story, barely challenged him at all
Cruz and Rubio did find moments to break through, in a debate that didn’t shake things up so much as it seemed to confirm the status quo of a volatile race. Republicans found agreement, of course, in saying Hillary Clinton represents the past.
“The Democratic Party and the political left have no ideas about the future,” Rubio said. “This nation is going to turn the page.”
Rubio and his rivals, though, made clear that the next chapter is still being written and is likely to be a messy one.