Bush, Carson seek to steady campaigns in Republican debate

The debate, the last for the Republicans until mid-December, could help shape the course of the campaign for the 2016 Presidential elections into the winter.

Republicans Jeb Bush and Ben Carson sought to steady their campaigns in Tuesday night’s presidential debate, with Bush taking advantage of a policy-focused contest to detail positions on the economy and immigration while Carson swatted away mounting questions about the veracity of his celebrated biography.

The debate, the last for the Republicans 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 less than three months before the Iowa caucuses lead-off the State-by-State nominating contests.

Bush entered the debate in a precarious position, desperate to ease the anxiety of donors and other supporters as he slipped into single digits in polls. While it’s unclear if his competent performance on Tuesday night will be enough to reset his campaign, he highlighted his fluency on domestic policy issues and described himself as best prepared to take on Democratic front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton in a general election.

Billionaire Donald Trump and Carson, both political outsiders, now lead the crowded Republican field, defying standard political logic, while experienced politicians such as Bush have struggled to break through.

After a furore over moderators’ aggressive tone in the last debate, Tuesday’s hosts from Fox Business News allowed the eight candidates to deliver lengthy, uninterrupted answers and avoided attempts to get them to engage with one another.

In one of the night’s notable exchanges, Bush stood by his call for allowing some people living in the U.S. illegally to find a path to legal status, criticising 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,” said Bush, the former Florida governor.

Bush was backed by Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who at times sought to be the voice of experience and moderation. On Trump’s immigration plan, he said, “We all know you can’t pick them up and ship them across, back across the border. It’s a silly argument.”

Bush avoided tangling with fellow Floridian Marco Rubio, a shift in strategy after his poor performance in the last debate. Bush is vying with Rubio for the support of the party establishment in a race dominated so far by political outsiders such as Trump and Carson, a retired neurosurgeon with a strong appeal to Christian conservatives.

Rubio had another strong performance, sticking to his strategy of weaving his own compelling personal story as the child of Cuban immigrants into his policy discussions and taking an aggressive stance on foreign policy.

Still, Rubio faced criticism from some rivals, most notably Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, about whether he’s a true conservative given his calls for a child tax care credit and increased 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 more military spending was backed by Trump, the real estate mogul who has led the Republican field for months. While Trump has generated attention through his outspoken statements on the campaign trail, he delved into the policy discussions in Tuesday’s debate, including outlining his opposition to 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 Republican field has been challenged in recent weeks by Carson, another outsider appealing to voters angry with Washington. 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.

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 trying to stab a close friend when he was a teenager.

“I have no problem with being vetted,” said the soft-spoken Carson. “What I do have a problem with is being lied about.”

Carson, the only African-American candidate in the 2016 race, was cheered by the debate audience when he suggested he was facing tougher scrutiny than Clinton. But he appeared to flounder on some policy questions, including a disconnected answer about whether he would break up big banks.

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz repeatedly played the populist. He railed against the “Washington cartel,” big government and even big banks.

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?”

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 political action committee. 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. When Trump at one point suggested the moderators let Bush answer a question, he responded with a tinge of sarcasm, “Thank you, Donald, for allowing me to speak at the debate. That’s really nice of you. Really appreciate that.”

Missing from the line-up 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 earlier in an undercard debate, along with Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.

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Printable version | Apr 3, 2020 12:41:49 AM |

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