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National

GOP Presidential Debate: Policies Not Personalities Dominate

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The Republican presidential candidates debated taxes, immigration and foreign policy last night in Milwaukee. It was their fourth debate, this one hosted by Fox Business Network and The Wall Street Journal. There were only eight candidates on stage at this time, clashing mostly over policy not personality. NPR's national political correspondent, Mara Liasson, has this roundup.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Last night's debate may not have clarified the Republican nominating battle. There were no moments dramatic enough to reshape the race. But the candidates did have some heated exchanges about what direction their party needs to take in order to win back the White House. Ohio Governor John Kasich clashed with Donald Trump over Trump's plan to deport 11 million immigrants in this country illegally.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN KASICH: For the 11 million people, come on, folks; we all know you can't pick them up and ship them across - back across the border. It's a silly argument. It's not an adult argument. It makes no sense.

DONALD TRUMP: All I can say is you're lucky in Ohio that you struck oil. That's for one thing. Let me just tell you. I don't have to hear from this man, believe me.

LIASSON: Jeb Bush, who's had three lackluster debate performances and was under tremendous pressure to do better last night, was more aggressive than he'd been in previous debates. He said Trump's position on immigration would be disastrous for the GOP.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JEB BUSH: It's not embracing American values. And it would tear communities apart. And it would send the signal that we're not the kind of country that I know America is.

(APPLAUSE)

BUSH: And even having this conversation sends a powerful signal. They're doing high-fives in the Clinton campaign right now when they hear this.

LIASSON: Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who's been positioning himself to inherit the support of outsiders like Trump, had a different interpretation of what would give Democrats an advantage on immigration.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TED CRUZ: What was said was right. The Democrats are laughing because if Republicans join Democrats as the party of amnesty, we will lose.

(APPLAUSE)

CRUZ: And, you know, I understand that when the mainstream media covers immigration, it doesn't often see it as an economic issue. But I can tell you for millions of Americans at home watching this, it is a very personal economic issue. And I will say the politics of it would be very, very different if a bunch of lawyers or bankers were crossing the Rio Grande or if a bunch of people with journalism degrees were coming over and driving down the wages in the press.

(LAUGHTER, APPLAUSE)

LIASSON: The biggest target for all the candidates last night was, not surprisingly, Hillary Clinton. Here's Carly Fiorina, the only female candidate in the Republican race.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CARLY FIORINA: We must beat Hillary Clinton. Carly Fiorina can beat Hillary Clinton. I will beat Hillary Clinton.

LIASSON: Last night's debate was also notable for what didn't happen. The subject of Marco Rubio's personal finances or his use of a Florida Republican Party American Express card never came up. None of the Republican candidates brought up the accusations that Ben Carson had fabricated parts of his biography, including his assertion that he had been offered a full scholarship at West Point. Although, one of the moderators did ask Carson whether he thought his credibility had been hurt.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BEN CARSON: When I said that I was offered a scholarship to West Point, that's the words that they used. But I've had many people come and say the same thing to me. That's what people do in those situations. We have to start treating people the same and finding out what people really think and what they're made of. And people who know me know that I'm an honest person.

(APPLAUSE)

UNIDENTIFIED MODERATOR: Thank you, Dr. Carson.

LIASSON: And that was the end of that. As the moderators had promised, they kept the debate focused on policy and tried to let themselves fade into the background. That allowed the candidates to debate each other. One of the sharpest exchanges, a discussion of Marco Rubio's plan to increase the child tax credit, turned into a clash with Rand Paul over what's more important to Republicans, fiscal responsibility or a strong defense.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARCO RUBIO: I know that Rand is a committed isolationist. I'm not. I believe the world is a stronger and a better place when the United States is the strongest military power in the world.

RAND PAUL: Marco, Marco, how is it conservative - how is it conservative to add a trillion-dollar expenditure for the federal government that you're not paying for...

RUBIO: Because...

PAUL: How is it conservative...

RUBIO: Are you talking about the military, Rand?

PAUL: How is it conservative to add a trillion dollars in military expenditures? You cannot be a conservative if you're going to keep promoting new programs that you're not going to pay for.

RUBIO: If I may respond...

UNIDENTIFIED MODERATOR: One more quick - very quickly, Senator.

(APPLAUSE)

RUBIO: We can't even have an economy if we're not safe. There are radical jihadists in the Middle East beheading people and crucifying Christians.

LIASSON: If there is a conflict between these two pillars of Republican orthodoxy, fiscal discipline and a strong military, Rubio probably represents the majority view of the GOP, especially since the emergence of ISIS. Republican candidates other than the two leaders, Trump and Carson, have been searching for opportunities to break out of the pack. They won't get another chance until December 15, when they'll meet again on stage in Nevada. That's a pretty long break in a nominating contest that's been defined by these debates more than anything else. Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.