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New GOP Debate, Same GOP Contest

Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before which he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal.
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The fourth Republican presidential debate left the spirited, crazy-quilt contest in the same place it was the day before.

Ben Carson and Marco Rubio, the fastest-rising Republican candidates, were supposed to be the targets Tuesday night; they weren't touched.

Carson artfully deflected questions raised about alleged inaccuracies in his life story. He didn't seem comfortable answering an Islamic-terrorism query, but didn't seem hurt by it either. 

Rubio swatted away mild challenges to his positions and escaped personal scrutiny. Issue was taken with his proposal for an expensive child-care tax credit, but no sparks flew.

The other front-runner, Donald Trump, took a few gratuitous shots at rivals, as is his style, and repeated his protectionist tirades against China and Mexico and his vow to deport 11 million illegal immigrants. Conceivably the businessman-showman, who has appeared to be popular with working class voters, might have created a problem when he suggested that wages were too high.

The sharpest performance was delivered by Ted Cruz, along with Rubio the chief challenger at this point to the Carson-Trump outsider duo. Cruz was typically crisp, with strong right-wing positions on tax and economics policies, a vow never to bail out banks, and opposition to federal sugar subsidies that have been supported by Rubio.

There were some tough exchanges on immigration but they broke no new ground. 

Reality sometimes was a casualty. Carson asserted that every time the minimum wage is raised jobs are lost; surveys in recent years have demonstrated that's not the case on both the federal and state level. Carly Fiorina, the former chief executive of Hewlett-Packard, repeated her proposal to reduce the federal tax code from about 75,000 pages to three -- a notion not even the keenest anti-tax conservatives take seriously.

The moderators, from Fox Business news and the Wall Street Journal, avoided strong challenges to the candidates. That was presumably in response to Republican complaints that the moderators of the previous debate, on CNBC on Oct. 28, were contentious and unfair. Afterward, Republicans praised the debate.

The back-of-the-pack aspirants -- Governor John Kasich of Ohio, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky and Fiorina -- had their moments, but probably not enough of them.

The latest polls show Trump and Carson running well ahead of the rest of the field. The second tier is led by the ascending freshman senators Rubio and Cruz, while ex-Florida Governor Jeb Bush, only six months ago considered a strong favorite to capture the nomination, has been floundering.

It has been hard for the others to get any political oxygen. Tuesday night's debate was limited to the eight candidates who score highest in the polls; four others were relegated to an earlier, undercard debate, and several weren't included at all.

Carson and Rubio have been targets of increased media scrutiny and criticism from rivals. Questions have been raised about Rubio's financial dealings when he was a state legislator, his mediocre attendance record as a senator and his one-time support, since abandoned, for immigration reform. Carson has been scrutinized about some of the details of his rise from urban poverty to becoming a world-renowned pediatric neurosurgeon.

It's too early to know whether any of this has affected their standing. The first votes won't be cast until the Iowa caucuses, 83 days away, with the New Hampshire primary coming eight days later. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Albert R. Hunt at ahunt1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Jonathan Landman at jlandman4@bloomberg.net