MILWAUKEE: Republican White House hopefuls launched into their latest presidential debate Tuesday, with outsider Donald Trump expected to spar with his rivals but other candidates stressing that their real adversary is Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton.
The showdown between the top eight candidates in Milwaukee, Wisconsin comes 83 days before the first state-wide votes in the primary process to determine which Republican and which Democrat will square off in the November 2016 contest to succeed Barack Obama.
Billionaire Donald Trump and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson are riding high in the polls, outshining their establishment counterparts who are struggling to gain traction in a political environment saturated with populist anger.
The showdown began with no personal infighting or drama. Trump and Carson both said they would not raise the minimum wage.
“We are a country that is being beaten on every front,” Trump said. “I hate to say it, but we have to leave it the way it is.”
Carson, who like Trump has never held elected office, has seen elements of his undeniably inspirational personal narrative come under investigation, including his accounts of his violent adolescence when he says he attempted to stab a classmate.
He may face questions about his past from the moderators but perhaps also from Trump, who used his huge Monday night campaign rally in Springfield, Illinois to mock Carson’s insistence about his past violent streak.
“This is the only election in history where you’re better off if you stab somebody,” a quizzical Trump told the crowd. “What are we coming to?”
Many will be watching to see whether Jeb Bush, the politically privileged early frontrunner now languishing in single-digit support, will achieve a comeback moment and show more spark in the fourth Republican showdown than he did in the third, when he was bested by Senator Marco Rubio, his former political apprentice.
“I know I have to get better,” Bush told supporters last week after his lackluster performance.
Rubio has emerged as the Republican race’s establishment favorite. Anticipating Bush could come out swinging, Rubio launched a pre-emptive strike of sorts, unveiling an online ad that uses Bush’s own words.
“I’m a huge Marco fan,” Bush is seen saying in the Rubio ad. “He’s probably the most articulate conservative on the scene today.”
Amid pressure to narrow the field for the debate, which is to focus on the economy, broadcaster Fox Business Network changed the format, with only eight candidates at the podiums instead of 10.
With the Trump-Carson and Bush-Rubio battle lines coalescing, the four other candidates on stage — Senators Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, Ohio Governor John Kasich and former Hewlett-Packard chief executive Carly Fiorina — were seeking opportunities to stand out.
Low-pollers Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee failed to make the cut.
They were relegated to an undercard debate that was held prior to the main event and which also featured Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal and former senator Rick Santorum.
Christie made a strong case for himself getting back on the main stage, arguing that Republicans ought to stop attacking one another and focus their efforts on preventing Clinton from expanding government.
“She is the real adversary and we’d better stay focused on… her,” he said.
“Hillary Clinton’s coming for your wallet, everybody. Don’t worry about Huckabee or Jindal, worry about her.”
Last month’s debate, hosted by cable business channel CNBC, was marked by the confrontational tone that moderators took with the candidates, many of whom complained about being asked “gotcha” questions.