MILWAUKEE — After weeks of personal sniping, the Republican presidential candidates clashed sharply over immigration and other policies in their debate here on Tuesday, with Gov. John Kasich of Ohio and former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida trying to energize their campaigns by heaping scorn on Donald J. Trump’s plan to deport unauthorized immigrants.
In the most substantive Republican debate so far, Mr. Kasich and Mr. Bush, who have been fading in polls, presented themselves as experienced chief executives who had practical solutions to deal with national challenges like immigration. Yet Mr. Trump and another candidate, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, inveighed against what they called amnesty and argued that undocumented workers were driving down Americans’ wages.
The splintering over immigration, in a campaign dominated so far by the personas, speeches and backgrounds of the candidates, illuminated the brightest dividing line between Republican hopefuls like Mr. Bush and Mr. Kasich, who favor a comprehensive immigration overhaul, and the many primary voters who have embraced Mr. Trump’s harsh language about immigrants in the country illegally.
While several other candidates, like Senator Marco Rubio of Florida and the retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, received a pass from the moderators on immigration, Mr. Kasich took on the issue directly after Mr. Trump defended his plan to build a wall along the Mexican border and to identify and deport some 11 million people.
Interactive Feature | Best of the 4th Republican Debate The Republican presidential candidates clashed sharply over immigration and other policies at their debate on Tuesday.
“Think about the families; think about the children,” Mr. 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.”
Mr. Trump, whose counterpunches were a memorable part of his early debate performances, replied coolly at first, citing President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s approach to deporting immigrants in the 1950s.
“You don’t get nicer; you don’t get friendlier,” Mr. Trump said. “We have no choice. We have no choice.”
But Mr. Kasich stayed on the attack. “Little false little things, sir, they really don’t work when it comes to the truth,” he said.
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Mr. Bush then tried to pounce. He twitted Mr. Trump, his longtime rival in the race, for suggesting that Mr. Bush be allowed to speak — “What a generous man you are” — and warned that Mr. Trump’s harsh proposals would drive Hispanic voters to support the Democratic candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton.
“They’re doing high-fives in the Clinton campaign right now when they hear this,” Mr. Bush said.
But policy details and disagreements, for the most part, replaced nasty potshots in the early going on Tuesday night, laying bare real fissures within the Republican Party on immigration, national security, trade and the meaning of being a conservative. The candidates used the 90 seconds they were allotted for each answer to promote their tax proposals, to lament what they said were intrusive business regulations and to delve into the country’s monetary policy. Even when Mr. Kasich sought to speak at one point when he was not called on, it was because he wanted to discuss a value-added tax.
Mr. Rubio was not only able to avoid being drawn into the contentious immigration debate, but also repeatedly received questions that allowed him to answer with versions of his stump speech. Even he seemed unable to believe his good fortune when he was asked to make his case against Mrs. Clinton. He chuckled for a moment before unspooling a well-rehearsed argument: why he can prosecute a “generational” case against her.
Interactive Graphic | Who’s Winning the Presidential Campaign? History suggests that each party’s eventual nominee will emerge from 2015 in one of the top two or three positions, as measured by endorsements, fund-raising and polling.
“If I am the nominee, they will be the party of the past, and we will be the party of the 21st century,” said Mr. Rubio, 44.
Less than three months before Iowa begins the Republican nominating contest, the jostling in Milwaukee reflected the growing urgency the candidates feel to stand out in a sprawling 14-person field. With a pair of political novices, Mr. Trump and Mr. Carson, atop the polls, the other candidates appeared determined to remain in the campaign until there is more clarity on who is likely to be the nominee. But the muddled picture is clearly starting to unnerve many in the party.
Some of the candidates expressed this frustration and sought to distinguish themselves by speaking more aggressively about their plans to cut taxes or create jobs — even if they did not deliver many specifics.
They barely explored recent controversies roiling the Republican race, particularly accusations that Mr. Carson had embellished or even fabricated part of his inspiring life story. Asked if he was worried about those questions, Mr. Carson drew strong applause from the audience by criticizing the news media as biased against him.
“The fact of the matter is, we should vet all candidates,” Mr. Carson said. “I have no problem with being vetted. What I do have a problem with is being lied about.” He then accused Mrs. Clinton of initially lying about the motives of the terrorists who killed four State Department employees in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012, and charged that the news media had not held her accountable. As for himself, he said, “People who know me know that I’m an honest person.”
Mr. Rubio, who delivered the strongest performance in the October debate, has been struggling since then to put to rest questions about his personal finances, with the Bush campaign and Mr. Trump portraying him as irresponsible. But that issue did not surface Tuesday, and Mr. Rubio largely skated above the sharpest clashes in the debate.
Mr. Bush, who clashed memorably with Mr. Rubio in the debate last month, strained Tuesday to show skeptical donors and voters that his campaign is still viable, ignoring Mr. Rubio and instead repeatedly attacking Mrs. Clinton on fiscal issues.
“Hillary Clinton’s approach to this is more top-down, more regulation, more taxes, more government, and it will destroy our economy,” Mr. Bush said.
Several other candidates also focused more on Mrs. Clinton than on their rivals. Mr. Kasich, who had declined to attack her in the first months of his campaign, joined in, saying, “It will be a disaster if she got elected.”
Some of the most striking moments came as candidates revealed more of themselves than in previous debates.
Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, who had perhaps the best night of his campaign, delivered a sophisticated explanation of his libertarian-leaning views on foreign policy. And he made a forceful case about conservatism, portraying Mr. Rubio as a big spender who would not adhere to small-government values.
“Marco, how is it conservative to add a trillion-dollar expenditure for the government that you’re not paying for?” Mr. Paul asked, citing Mr. Rubio’s proposals for higher military spending.
Mr. Rubio responded by calling Mr. Paul “a committed isolationist,” and won one of the loudest ovations of the night by defending American leadership.
“I know that the world is a safer and better place when America is the strongest military power in the world,” Mr. Rubio said.
Mr. Paul did not relent in the face of the applause, responding, “I don’t think we’re any safer from bankruptcy court,” and asking Mr. Rubio how he could be “a conservative and be liberal on military spending.”
Mr. Trump expounded on views that placed him outside of mainstream thinking for many independent and swing voters, not only on immigration but also in his fierce opposition to increasing the minimum wage; he said that wages were too high.
The debate was also a prime opportunity for the Republicans to distinguish themselves as economic thinkers with new ideas to create jobs or lower the national debt, $18 trillion and counting. But few of them left powerful impressions. Mr. Trump and Mr. Carson staked out their opposition to a $15 minimum wage but offered no new proposals to help poor and working-class people. Mr. Rubio agreed with them on the minimum wage but argued that higher education and vocational training must become more accessible and be aimed specifically at increasing wages.
“Welders make more money than philosophers,” Mr. Rubio said. “We need more welders and less philosophers.”
Mr. Kasich noted that his state, Ohio, had increased the minimum wage and said that “people need help.” He cited his plan to cut personal and corporate taxes and achieve a balanced federal budget by 2024.
“Hillary and the Democrats promise everything on the spending side,” Mr. Kasich said. “We have to be careful about what we promise on the tax side.”
Sensing an opening to appeal to the party’s conservative grass roots after Mr. Kasich and Mr. Bush attacked Mr. Trump for his hard-line stance on immigration, Mr. Cruz uncorked an assault on his party and the news media.
Picking up on Mr. Bush’s comment about Mrs. Clinton’s campaign exchanging “high-fives” over the Republican discussion of immigration, Mr. Cruz said Democrats were actually laughing. “If the Republicans join Democrats as the party of amnesty, we will lose,” he said.
Mr. Cruz suggested donors were tone-deaf on the issue because they did not appreciate the economic impact of what he said was illegal immigrants’ pushing down American wages. “The politics of it would be very, very different if a bunch of lawyers or bankers were crossing the Rio Grande,” he said, adding that the news coverage would also differ if undocumented immigrants were seeking journalism jobs.
“Then we would see stories about the economic calamity that is befalling our nation,” he said.
And, citing his own father’s legal emigration from Cuba, Mr. Cruz said the suggestion that opposing an immigration overhaul meant that Republicans were anti-immigrant was “offensive.”
After the early exchanges on immigration, Mr. Trump seemed to struggle in a debate focused largely on policy substance. He was not helped by an audience that booed him when he criticized Carly Fiorina for trying to cut off Mr. Paul’s answer on a foreign policy question. “Why does she keep interrupting everybody?” Mr. Trump asked. Moments later, audience members chuckled when he boasted about being “stable mates” with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia when they appeared on the same episode of “60 Minutes.”
Ms. Fiorina, who has slipped after a strong performance in the September debate, sought to revive herself with a story about a woman she met on the campaign trail who expressed concern for her children’s future. She called for upending the political status quo and proposed a series of fiscal overhauls, winning a booming ovation by saying, “We must take our government back.”
Mr. Cruz also argued repeatedly for big government changes, but stumbled notably when he pledged to eliminate five major federal agencies and then struggled to name them — a moment that recalled another Texan, then-Gov. Rick Perry, in a debate during the 2012 presidential race.
“Five major agencies that I would eliminate: the I.R.S., the Department of Commerce, the Department of Energy, uh, the Department of Commerce and HUD, and then 25 specific programs,” Mr. Cruz said.
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