Who Won the Republican Presidential Debate?

A substantive discussion in Milwaukee left much of the field unchanged—but a couple candidates managed to boost their fortunes.

Morry Gash / AP

Improbably, the best moment of the Republican debates so far came during a wonky discussion of tax policy.

It occurred as the GOP candidates debated in Milwaukee Tuesday night. The magical exchange kicked off with a question to Ben Carson about his tax plan, which he’s said is based on Biblical tithing. Carson’s answer was revealing: He made clear that he’d eliminate all tax credits, including the earned-income tax credit and the home-mortgage-interest deduction, a significantly regressive change. Then Rand Paul and Ted Cruz both got tough questions about their tax plans, which are projected to create enormous revenue shortfalls. When neither man explained how they’d fill that hole in the deficit, moderator Maria Bartiromo pushed them on it. (Not that they offered much of an answer.)

Next, the moderators turned to Marco Rubio, asking him to defend his costly proposal for a child tax-credit increase. Paul jumped in, asking Rubio how he could call himself a conservative when he would create a new entitlement and increase defense spending. Soon Cruz jumped in, agreeing with Rubio that defense spending was important. Then Carly Fiorina piped up, making a plea for zero-based budgeting.

It was a great moment—great as politics, and great as entertainment. The candidates were engaged in substantive debates about their respective ideas for the economy. The moderators sparked the conversation but mostly had the good sense to stay out things once the discussion had begun rolling. And the candidates were confronting each other directly—but on questions of policy, rather than picking on each other over picayune matters. If debates are intended to give voters a sense of the candidates’ positions and personalities, those few minutes were as good as it gets.

That’s a win for Fox Business, which had promised a more substantive debate than CNBC’s widely maligned debacle last month—though it also produced some dry passages. But who cares about the relative successes of different networks? That’s all just a sideshow. Let’s get down to the policy.

A series of tough questions placed the candidates back on their heels. The questions about taxes were the most revealing. Nearly every candidate defended his or her tax plan on the basis of “fairness,” effectively appropriating a progressive buzzword. Yet no candidate was able to provide a satisfying answer about how he or she would plug the large hole they’d blow in the federal budget by sharply reducing government revenues with tax cuts. Most didn’t even try.

The candidates also squared off over how to handle illegal immigration, with Jeb Bush and John Kasich forming a moderate alliance, arguing that deporting the 11 million unauthorized immigrants already in the United States was simply unrealistic. They encountered resistance from Donald Trump—unsurprisingly—and from Ted Cruz, who scored one of the best lines of the night by positioning immigration as an economic issue. “The politics of it would be very different if a bunch of lawyers and bankers were crossing the Rio Grande, or if a bunch of people with journalism degrees were driving down the wages in the press,” he quipped—an especially pointed line given that his interlocutor was The Wall Street Journal’s British-born editor, Gerard Baker. (Rubio managed to stay out of the conversation, probably a wise choice.)

One revealing exchange concerned the candidates’ foreign-policy views, particularly on Syria and Iraq. Ben Carson drew the first question, about whether he backed President Obama’s decision to send a small contingent of special-operations forces to Syria, and badly fumbled it, delivering a rambling, incoherent answer with no obvious point. Jeb Bush and Carly Fiorina’s answers were outwardly stronger, but both argued for no-fly zones that would create a strong risk of hostilities with Russia. Against them, Rand Paul and Donald Trump—between whom little love is lost—teamed up in a dovish duo. Trump, agreeing with some Obama administration officials, basically said to let Putin have Syria if he wanted it. Paul, who had been accused of isolationism earlier in the night, ridiculed his opponents’ vow not to speak with Vladimir Putin: “It’s naïve and foolish to say we’re not going to talk to Russia.”

Late in the night, Kasich and Cruz engaged in an intense mano-a-mano fight over bailing out banks. Cruz insisted he’d allow big banks to fail in an economic crisis. Kasich portrayed himself as a sober, informed executive—and said Cruz was taking too great a risk with depositors’ money. It’s likely the exchange helped both men with voters sympathetic to themselves. (This conversation also led to the remarkable accusation by Kasich, a former Lehman Brothers banker, that greed was rampant on Wall Street.)

Who won the debate? Unlike past debates, there wasn’t an obvious a winner. Marco Rubio likely won by default, since he entered the debate as the rising star and only helped himself, answering questions with poise and detail, and imbuing them with feeling. As several reporters noted on Twitter during the event, Rubio’s answers are often taken nearly verbatim from his stump speech, but most voters don’t know the speech well, so it doesn’t matter at this point. His deft turn when Paul accused him of phony conservatism, making his answer an emotional one about defending America, was vintage Rubio.

Carson offered a mixed performance. Asked about the many stories questioning his past over the last week, he pivoted quickly to an answer questioning Hillary Clinton’s record on Benghazi. For someone said to be a shaky politician, it was quite smooth. But his answer on Syria was not so well-crafted.

Surprisingly it was Ted Cruz, the famed debater, who delivered one of the notable gaffes of the night. Promising to name five federal departments he’d eliminate, he named only four—ticking off the Commerce Department twice, in an echo of fellow Texan Rick Perry’s infamous “oops” moment in 2012. Since Cruz has no reputation as a flake, however, it won’t likely be as damaging.

Paul remains a confusing performer—sometimes, as on Syria, very sharp and crisp; other times, as when he focuses on the Federal Reserve, a little more confusing. But he also landed one of the best blows of the night. After Trump mounted his soap box to complain about how China was robbing the U.S. blind in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Paul wryly turned to the moderators, drawling: “Hey, Gerard, we might want to point out China’s not a part of this deal.” That wasn’t Trump’s only bad moment of the night. Though Kasich interrupted constantly, Trump lashed out only when Fiorina did the same, unwise for a man already accused of misogyny.

Kasich himself was perhaps the standout star of the night. Unlike at the CNBC debate, where he came out guns blazing and then quickly faded, Kasich was able to dominate the clock, repeatedly jumping in and asserting himself. Forty minutes in, he was clearly dominating. But his eclectic and moderate stances still seem like a tough sell.

What about Carly Fiorina? Somehow, she hasn’t shown the same magic she did in the first two debates. Once again, she was polished on Tuesday. In several cases, though, she seemed unready to go off her talking points. The first question she faced asked why Democratic presidents have recently had better job creation than Republicans, and she didn’t answer it. She also offered an unsatisfying explanation for how she’d replace Obamacare.

And then, finally, there’s Jeb Bush. The one-time frontrunner has continued to struggle. (His chance to speak was even the subject of on-stage jokes—never a good sign.) He desperately needed a stronger performance—and he got it. The good news for Miami is that Bush was much better than he’s been in the previous debates. The bad news for Miami is that he still isn’t great. Bush continues to stick to his canard about delivering 4 percent growth. As the night went on, he seemed to lose steam, and increasingly delivered meandering, confusing answers; somehow, his discussion of the Middle East ended up with a line about the American economy. Late in the night, he was also forced by Baker to sheepishly back away from his guarantee that he could prevent a financial crisis. This debate may have slowed Bush’s tumble, and it might even be enough for his campaign to claim that he’s rounded the bend and is on the rebound. Still, if this is the new Jeb, the new Jeb still isn’t going to be able to win the Republican nomination. —David Graham

11:26 pm: What made this debate more effective was that while it began slowly with recitations of policy plans and talking points, the candidates ultimately engaged with each other in a substantive way without the moderators having to force them to lace into each other. The exchanges flared up naturally, and for the most part, they were both entertaining and informative about real differences in philosophy. —Russell Berman

11:23 pm: One of the successes of this debate was that the moderators managed to cover more economic topics than last time. The positions on taxes were heavily recycled from the last debate, but both wages and Wall Street finally cropped up. Interestingly, the question of whether or not candidates would let big banks fail proved an unnecessarily difficult one. It seems not all the GOP hopefuls quite understand how a bank failure would work. More specifically, that the FDIC insures bank accounts up to $250,000, so all of the seeming concern about what would happen to Americans’ hard earned money in the event of a failure was largely misplaced. —Gillian White

11:22 pm: All told, the candidates spent no time attacking a reasonably well-moderated debate, and although there were a few intra-candidate attacks, none seemed particularly notable. Marco Rubio was polished. Rand Paul played a bigger role than he has in previous debates. Donald Trump was relatively reserved. Ben Carson certainly helped himself with his performance. Carly Fiorina acquitted herself okay, too. I can't see this debate stopping Jeb Bush’s slide or doing anything significant for John Kasich. On foreign policy, the interventionism of the field as a whole is intense. On domestic policy, all have aired tax plans that have no chance of becoming law. The winner: Americans, because this debate lasted about two rather than three hours. —Conor Friedersdorf

11:20 pm: Takeaway from Milwaukee: Brace for a new round of Rubio-rising stories. He came into this debate with momentum and he performed to expectations. His trend-line is up and will keep going up, though questions remain about his ability to turn elite opinion into votes.

Jeb was practically a nonfactor. He is just not good at this, and besides a couple of pre-scripted answers, he did nothing to stand out. The Jeb-death-watch narrative will also continue after this. Trump was sort of subdued, but he’s never that good in debates. Same with Carson—his voters don’t care that he’s borderline incoherent on any substantive questions. Kasich, as usual, seems to have infuriated base conservatives while appealing to moderates and liberal Republicans. Cruz was also strong. Like the last debate, he and Rubio are going to get the buzz out of this.

In a lot of ways this debate ratifies the status quo going in. No game-changers in that sense. Rand Paul showed up for the first time, but it’s not clear he has much of a constituency in this party. —Molly Ball

11:18 pm: At the start of the debate, I wondered whether Jeb Bush’s decision to hire a media trainer would show on the debate stage and it did, a little bit. Bush’s delivery seems to have improved, but maybe not enough to get him out of his low polling digits. Meanwhile, Marco Rubio again delivered a strong performance. What the two didn’t do is go head-to-head like they had in the last Republican debate. Maybe because doing so just wouldn’t work. It certainly didn’t for Bush then and it’s unlikely it would have for Rubio tonight. And it also may answer the question my colleague Russell Berman noted earlier: Will Bush leave his Super PAC to do the dirty work? Looks like that’s a strong possibility. —Priscilla Alvarez

11:16 pm: Trump: “I’m self-funding my campaign ... the United States can be better than ever before.” —Molly Ball

11:15 pm: Rubio: “The 21st century can be a new American century.”  —Molly Ball

11:15 pm: Rubio, remembering why he’s here tonight, unlike some of his competitors: “I ask you for your vote.” —Marina Koren

11:14 pm: Cruz: “If we get back to the free-market principles and constitutional liberties that built this country, we can turn this nation around.” —Molly Ball

11:13 pm: In contrast, Spain needs a divider in chief to amicably part with the Catalonians and Basques. —Conor Friedersdorf

11:13 pm: Jeb: “I don't think we need an agitator in chief or a divider in chief, we need a commander in chief.” —Molly Ball

11:13 pm: Jeb Bush has brought along a Lenny Skutnik—he’s seated a military widow who fights for veterans in the audience, and refers to her in his closing statement. —Yoni Appelbaum

11:12 pm: Fiorina: “Carly Fiorina can beat Hillary Clinton.” —Molly Ball

11:11 pm: Rand: “I’m the only fiscal conservative on the stage.” —Molly Ball

11:09 pm: The impressive Carly Fiorina we saw in the second debate seems to be relying on the same talking point over and over again—her work as the CEO of Hewlett-Packard. I’d say she’s nearing her quota before voters start saying, “We know.” Marina Koren

11:08 pm: Rand Paul seems to be at his most conventional when he’s talking about an “all-of-the-above” energy policy, which has been the standard talking point for nominees of both parties since George W. Bush was in office. —Russell Berman

11:07 pm: Rand, trying to find a middle ground on climate change, says, “While I do think man may have a role in our climate, I also think nature plays a role.” Does this mean humanity is not part of nature? If only we had philosophers to explore this metaphysical question...  —Matt Ford

11:06 pm: “We also promised to get people home tonight,” says Cavuto. The studio audience, inexplicably, fails to cheer. —Yoni Appelbaum

11:03 pm: Trump awakens. The fourth debate has given us his most subdued performance yet. —Marina Koren

11:01 pm: Maria Baritromo’s question appears to be a free opportunity to recite talking points about the candidate's differences with Hillary Clinton. Rubio took it and ran with it. —Matt Ford

11:00 pm: Rubio probably has the best handle on the talking points that middle-class voters want to hear when it comes to economics. —Gillian White

10:59 pm: “That is a great question, and let me begin by answering it.” Rubio may be the best at buying himself time on stage without falling over his words or reminding the audience of his position as CEO. —Marina Koren

10:56 pm: This exchange between Kasich and Cruz is a fascinating debate about the extent to which presidents need to be nimble or loyal to principle when crises arise that challenge their ideological predispositions. This was precisely the situation the Bush administration faced in 2008 when it pushed for a bank bailout against its philosophical aversion to the potential for “moral hazard.” —Russell Berman

10:55 pm: Fiorina: “We must take our government back.” Unclear whether anyone kept the gift receipt. —Marina Koren

10:54 pm: John Kasich is wrong to assert that it is possible to run something without philosophy. Utilitarianism and flexibility are premised on philosophical priors too. —Conor Friedersdorf

10:53 pm: “Philosophy doesn't work when you run something,” John Kasich says, summing up his politics of pragmatism over Ted Cruz's insistence on a politics of principle. —Russell Berman

10:52 pm: This isn’t a tough question. Whether they’re lying or not, the right answer for a president is, “No, I will not bail out any financial institution,” even if that promise has to be broken. —Conor Friedersdorf

10:51 pm: Neil Cavuto presses Ted Cruz on whether he would let a major financial institution like Bank of America fail during a crisis. “Yes,” Cruz replies. —Matt Ford

10:50 pm: Ted Cruz: The Fed is “a series of philosopher kings.” Perhaps we should replace them with welder-kings? —Conor Friedersdorf

10:49 pm: A good reminder that the roots of the Tea Party actually came in reaction to the bank bailouts under George W. Bush, before Obama was even elected. —Molly Ball

10:48 pm: Neil Cavuto somehow finds an area of agreement between Ted Cruz and Bernie Sanders. He asks Cruz if, as a former litigator, he would go after the Wall Street “crooks” that are guilty of “financial murder.” “Absolutely,” Cruz replies. —Russell Berman

10:47 pm: Cruz: “Would you bail out the big banks again? Nobody gave you an answer. I'll give you an answer. Absolutely not.” —Molly Ball

10:45 pm: Carson says monetary policies in play make it easy for big banks to run the financial system, but he doesn't provide any specifics on what regulations are problematic and are causing an “abnormal situation.” —Gillian White

10:43 pm: Jeb landed a strong conservative criticism of Hillary Clinton on Dodd-Frank by pointing to the toll it’s taken on community banks. But his inability to end his response on a strong note—he stuttered as he tried to wrap up—left a poor impression.—Tyler Bishop

10:42 pm: Bush is pressed on whether or not he can guarantee there won't be another financial crisis. He finally admits that he can't, but he says that capital requirements are key to preventing it. —Gillian White

10:41 pm: Bush skirts question on whether or not he would bail out banks in the event of another financial crisis. Instead, he talks about how Dodd-Frank has failed and how capital requirements need to be increased, while compliance for small and community banks are eased. —Gillian White

10:40 pm: As an addendum to my last comment, Kasich's hope that King Abdullah of Jordan “will reign for a thousand years” will probably raise more eyebrows than poll numbers. —Matt Ford

10:39 pm: “Oh, look at the time, look at the time,” says Neil Cavuto, speaking for millions.  This debate is much more bearable to watch than the CNBC one, but let's not forget we're on our fourth Republican debate and we're tired. —Marina Koren

10:38 pm: Kasich knows all the major players in world affairs, and he recites his approach country-by-country, eager to let voters to know that he knows them. You can't blame him for taking the opportunity, since as governor of Ohio, he has less of a chance to burnish his foreign-policy credentials than his senatorial rivals. —Russell Berman

10:37 pm: Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton has yet to win the nomination, but she’s the only Democrat that Republicans are targeting. The same thing occurred during the last debate. —Priscilla Alvarez

10:37 pm: Kasich was not going to stop speaking until he finished sharing his entire platform—or ran out of oxygen. —Gillian White

10:36 pm: As a frequent critic of the GOP's meddling, interventionist approach to foreign policy, even I am surprised to hear John Kasich announce his desire that Jordan's royal family reigns for the next 1,000 years. What unusual foresight he must imagine that he has! —Conor Friedersdorf

10:36 pm: John Kasich becomes the rare Republican candidate to praise President Obama, first for confronting the Chinese in the south China Sea, and ten for the Trans Pacific Partnership, which he also supports. —Russell Berman

10:34 pm: It also goes well with John McCain's frequent assertion that Russia is “a gas station masquerading as a country.” Republican senators sure have colorful descriptions for the Kremlin. —Marina Koren

10:33 pm: Rubio's assessment of Vladimir Putin as a “gangster” mirrors the U.S. embassy in Moscow's criticism of Russia as a ”mafia state” in the Wikileaks-released diplomatic cables to then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. —Matt Ford

10:33 pm: Although ostensibly a debate on business and the economy, tonight's contest is giving Rand Paul more opportunities than ever before to highlight his differences with the other candidates on foreign policy. Weirdly, Donald Trump has both attacked him on that issue and is also the candidate closest to him in challenging the neocon heavy GOP establishment consensus. —Conor Friedersdorf

10:32 pm: Marco Rubio calls Putin a “gangster,” also emphasizing that he hasn’t met Putin like some of his rivals. —Priscilla Alvarez

10:31 pm: Rand Paul declares it naive to believe that the United States would stop talking to Russia. And he is of course correct. He also points out that his opponents are tempting war with Russia. —Conor Friedersdorf

10:31 pm: Donald Trump gets booed for going after Carly Fiorina's interruptions. “Why does she get to keep interrupting everybody?” he asks. “Terrible.” The crowd doesn't agree. —Russell Berman

10:30 pm: Rand Paul, alleged isolationist, is talking some common-sense about the Middle East: “I think it's naïve and foolish to say we’re not going to talk to Russia.” He also notes that establishing a no-fly zone could very easily lead to war with Russia. —David Graham

10:29 pm: Carly Fiorina is one of three candidates on the stage never to have held elective or appointive office. But unlike Carson or Trump, she’s clearly done her homework on foreign-policy issues. When pressed, she consistently rattles off well-rehearsed answers, cramming in details as if enough specifics can drown out any doubts about experience. And so far, it seems to be working for her. —Yoni Appelbaum

10:29 pm: Carly Fiorina brags that she has spoken to Vladimir Putin, “and not in a green room for a show, but in a meeting.” But in the same response she says she would not talk to him again “for a while” if she's elected president. —Russell Berman

10:28 pm: Jeb Bush, signatory to the Project for a New American Century, has an awful lot of chutzpah to accuse another candidate of treating geopolitics like a board game for urging a lesser American role in Syria. On this one, Donald Trump has a far stronger case--though naturally, he immediately starts talking nonsense about Libyan oil. —Conor Friedersdorf

10:27 pm: Donald Trump says that the Iraq War was a mistake, then says “we should have kept the oil” and given it to Americans who lost their limbs fighting in that war. —Matt Ford

10:25 pm: Republican candidates usually fall over themselves to say that they will “stand up to Putin” whenever they get the chance. But it seems like in this debate, it's enough for them to name-drop Putin—whatever that guy’s doing! Trump is the first to actually mention the biggest news in Russia this month—the jetliner crash in Egypt that killed all the mostly Russian passengers. “If Putin wants to go knock the hell out of ISIS, I'm all for it,” Trump said. —Marina Koren

10:24 pm: Trump: Hey, if Putin wants to fight ISIS, let him have it. This isn't actually that far from the attitudes of many American foreign-policy experts. —David Graham

10:23 pm: Trump and Putin, apparently best buds after hanging out during a 60 minutes appearance. —Gillian White

10:23 pm: If the lesson of history is that when America pulls back, bad things happen, as Jeb Bush asserts, one wonders how long he would've wanted the Vietnam War to be waged. —Conor Friedersdorf

10:22 pm: Jeb Bush says the U.S. needs a no-fly zone over Syria and safe zones for refugees fleeing the country. “We've not dealt with this threat of terror in the Middle East.” —Marina Koren

10:21 pm: Jeb Bush says that Islamic terrorism is the biggest treat today. “We have a caliphate the size of Indiana,” he said. —Priscilla Alvarez

10:21 pm: Ben Carson suggests that Russia's presence in Syria is an argument in favor of the United States being there too. Another perspective: Russia's presence in the other side of a weird multi-party proxy war significantly increases the potential costs of American presence in the country. —Conor Friedersdorf

10:20 pm: Ben Carson draws a question on counter-terrorism policy, and whether he backs putting troops in Syria and leaving them in Afghanistan. That's bad luck, because his answer is incoherent; he says we “can't give up ground,” notes that Putin and China are in Syria, and well, who even knows. The only clear takeaway: “We have to destroy their caliphate.” —David Graham

10:19 pm: Carson on Obama's decision to send special forces into Syria to aid in the fight against the Islamic State. “Well, putting the special ops people in there is better than not having them in there.” —Marina Koren

10:18 pm: Rand Paul lands what might be the first effective blow on Trump during a debate. Concise, accurate, and striking at one of his standard stump-speech lines. —Matt Ford

10:17 pm: Once again, a candidate—in this case Rand Paul—has stepped in to do the moderator's job of fact-checking and pushing back against the other candidates' statements. Interestingly, Trump has no comeback at all as Paul disputes his trade statements. He's completely shut down. —Molly Ball

10:17 pm: After catching Donald Trump mistakenly believing that China was a party to the TPP, Rand Paul could've pressed his advantaged with a line like, “As is so often true, the frontrunner has no idea what he's talking about, as confident as he sounds.” Instead he went easy on Trump. I wonder why. —Conor Friedersdorf

10:15 pm: What's this? Is that the sound of a potential, quite unexpected, Rand Paul comeback? At least on the stage tonight, Paul seems like his usual, fired-up self, and not the politician we saw nearly complaining about running for president during a livestream of his day on the campaign trail. —Marina Koren

10:15 pm: Rand: “Hey, Gerard, we might want to point out China's not a part of this deal.” —Molly Ball

10:14 pm: Weird moment: The outtro music for the next ad break starts playing, but Gerard Baker and Rand Paul are in too rapt a discussion of TPP to stop and let the ads run. —David Graham

10:12 pm:  Trump says the TPP was “designed for China to come through the back door,” which would probably come to a significant surprise to China, since the trade pact's unstated purpose is to counterbalance Chinese economic influence in the Pacific. —Matt Ford

10:12 pm: Trump describes the Trans-Pacific Partnership the way a mother would that one kid in her son's class: “It's a deal that's going to lead to nothing but trouble.” —Marina Koren

10:11 pm: Trump is trying to split the difference on the Trans-Pacific Partnership—he's not against trade deals per se, he suggests; just against this particular trade deal, which he says is badly negotiated. —David Graham

10:11 pm: Trump: “The TPP is a horrible deal. It was designed for China to come through the back door, like they always do.” —Gillian White

10:10 pm: Fiorina's tax policy is still simply, “three page tax code”—Gillian White

10:10 pm: Trump channels his inner Daft Punk: “We have to make our military bigger, better, stronger than ever before.” —Marina Koren

10:10 pm: Twitter notes that one big reason Cruz is going after sugar subsidies is that Rubio has political allies in the sugar business. —David Graham

10:09 pm: Rand Paul correctly points out that Marco Rubio is not a fiscal conservative. He responds by defending huge increases in military and domestic spending—and the audience applauds, demonstrating why the Republican Party is not going to be a fiscally conservative force in 2017, as it has not been for years. —Conor Friedersdorf

10:09 pm: Cruz may be right that sugar subsidies should go, but that wouldn't save that much money—it's only cost about $15 billion since 2008. —David Graham

10:08 pm: I agree with Conor about Rubio. Every time he speaks, he sounds like he is actually building a case—as opposed to gunning for media attention. —Tyler Bishop

10:07 pm: So far, Marco Rubio is turning out as polished a performance as I've ever seen from him. —Conor Friedersdorf

10:07 pm: Interesting argument here between Rand Paul and Marco Rubio. Paul accused Rubio of being a fake conservative by adding a major tax credit and increasing military spending. Rubio zings Paul right back, accusing him of being an isolationist, then goes on to talk about the importance of American defense. It's just like with Bush in the last debate: It doesn't matter how well his opponents have prepared, Rubio is really good at turning their questions around and making them into big wins for himself. —David Graham

10:05 pm: Rubio mentions incredibly high price of childcare, and says that it informs his tax code changes so that Americans can head to work without worrying about who will take care of their children. —Gillian White

10:03 pm: So much for that bell. Candidates are given 90 seconds to respond to each question with a bell to signal the end of time, but as the debate continues less and less importance is paid attention to it. —Priscilla Alvarez

10:00 pm: Ted Cruz just had a Rick Perry moment. Like the former governor of his state who pledged to eliminate three agencies and then forgot the third, the senator from Texas pledged to cut five, and then listed the IRS, Department of Energy, the Department of Housing and Urban Development—and the Department of Commerce, twice. The one he forgot, according to his website, is the Department of Education—the same one Perry forgot. —Yoni Appelbaum

9:59 pm: I'm not sure why we persist in indulging the fantasy that a president will be elected and implement a sweeping change to tax law when the particulars—as in Rand Paul's plan—would obviously never get through Congress. Even if he were elected, there is no chance that plan would be law, and it isn't a proposal that lends itself to being implemented a little bit, it's either all or nothing. —Conor Friedersdorf

9:58 pm: What's interesting about all of these answers from the candidates about their tax plans is that they're making fairly impassioned pleas toward “fairness”—often a Democratic buzzword. But pretty much every plan would create a huge revenue shortfall, and none of them is answering how they'd make up for that hole. —David Graham

9:57 pm: Rand Paul says eliminating the payroll tax would create a huge bonus for many Americans, but for what it's worth the conservative Tax Foundation says it would simply shift that burden to a Value Added Tax.—David Graham

9:55 pm: Ben Carson goes with a fairly simplistic argument for why the mortgage and charitable deductions can be eliminated. People owned homes before 1913, when the income tax was created, and charities existed then, too. That doesn't say much. —Russell Berman

9:54 pm: Carson: “There will be a lot of opportunities for poor people not to be poor people.”—David Graham

9:53 pm: Carson says his tithing tax plan is about proportionality “I don't see how things get a lot more fair than that.” And that the key is getting rid of loopholes, and deductions because that's what tips the scale. But still his math doesn't work out when it comes to generating revenue, because he's assuming that everyone and every organization will pay taxes—including nonprofits and low-income families.—Gillian White

9:52 pm: Would Ben Carson really eliminate the earned income tax credit and the home mortgage interest deduction? That would be a steeply regressive change to the tax code. —David Graham

9:51 pm: Stage presence is a huge factor in these debates––and I wonder if others share my impression that Donald Trump, Carly Fiorina, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz have it, and that Jeb Bush and Rand Paul don't. It's a strange quality. And does Ben Carson have it? It seems like he wouldn't, but I think he does. —Conor Friedersdorf

9:50 pm: Conor, I maintain America's secret sauce is sriracha, but there is disagreement about this on twitter. Goldberg says Russian dressing; Marina says chipotle mayo. It's a stark illustration of the divide in our visions for this country. —Molly Ball

9:49 pm: Fiorina's answer about Obamacare is far more heat than light—she asserts, in the face of facts, that it's not helping anyone. But we do get a sense of what she proposes instead, which is state-managed high-risk pools. That would still likely revoke benefits from many people, but it would answer the question of what do for citizens with pre-existing conditions. —David Graham

9:49 pm: Carly Fiorina is the first Republican to make an overt play for Scott Walker's endorsement in the debate held in his home state; she name-dropped the failed 2016 hopeful and complimented his leadership on healthcare. —Russell Berman

9:48 pm: Carly Fiorina says that the secret sauce of America is “innovation and entrepreneurship,” which is a relief--I've lately feared that it is Dorrito-flavored, imitation cheese sauce. —Conor Friedersdorf

9:47 pm: With a single comment on journalist wages, Ted Cruz completely derails most journalists on Twitter into discussing their own economic plight. A brilliant move to distract the media! —Matt Ford

9:47 pm: Donald Trump made an interesting argument earlier this evening, touting the era known as Mexican Repatriation as evidence that mass deportation is a practical policy. Interesting, because when that era has surfaced lately, it’s generally been offered as evidence of just how problematic Trump’s scheme would be. And one key fact Trump omitted? An estimated 60 percent of those forced or encouraged to cross the border were of Mexican descent—but were actually American citizens. —Yoni Appelbaum

9:44 pm: Many have wondered whether immigration is the sword of Damocles hanging over Rubio's campaign—could he survive the primary if other candidates started attacking him as pro-amnesty? Cruz didn't name Rubio in his anti-amnesty broadside just there, and the proximate targets were certainly Jeb and Kasich. But the implication was there. —Molly Ball

9:42 pm: Cruz: “The politics of it would be very different if a bunch of lawyers and bankers were crossing the Rio Grande...or if a bunch of people with journalism degrees were driving down the wages in the press.” —David Graham

9:40 pm: Rubio says that the country is going through massive economic transformation. He blames regulations and corporate taxes for discouraging full job growth. He says that saving the American dream requires easing up on businesses. —Gillian White

9:39 pm: Confirmation of Jeb’s point is quick to come from Hillary Clinton’s press secretary:

Yoni Appelbaum

9:38 pm: Trump appears to have picked Kasich as his punching bag this primary season, and I can't tell why. During the third debate,  Trump attributed Kasich's placement on the debate stage—at the end of the row of lecterns—to Kasich's poor showing in the polls. Tonight, Trump, standing at the center of the stage once again, cut off Kasich, saying “I don't need to listen to this man” and literally waving him away. —Marina Koren

9:37 pm: There is something special about Donald Trump's... well,I hesitate to call it logic. Dwight Eisenhower did it. And there was a slogan, “I like Ike.” So it must've been good! They had that slogan! Case closed! —Conor Friedersdorf

9:37 pm: Jeb Bush is finally goaded into action, delivering a rousing attack on deportation as inconsistent with American values. Not only that, he points out, talking about it may be politically inexpedient. “They’re doing high-fives in the Clinton campaign right now as they hear this.” Where has this Jeb been until now in the campaign? —Yoni Appelbaum

9:36 pm: The moderators aren't giving the candidates much pushback, so they're going to have to take matters into their own hands. Kasich now is taking on Trump on immigration: “Come on, folks, we all know you can't pick them up and ship them across the border.” —Molly Ball

9:34 pm: Kasich once again going for the squishy moderate middle, saying that contra Trump it's impossible to deport all the illegal immigrants. And the crowd cheers! —David Graham

9:34 pm: John Kasich is just going to ask the moderators to speak whenever he can. So far it's worked 1.5 times out of two. —David Graham

9:33 pm: Trump hits a well-loved theme: “We will have a wall. The wall will be built. The wall will be successful. If you don't think walls work, ask Israel.” —Molly Ball

9:32 pm: Carson has typically pivoted to media bias when asked about the embellishment of some parts of his book that have recently come into question, but this time he pivoted to Clinton and the Benghazi controversy. —Priscilla Alvarez

9:30 pm: Ben Carson gets a dig in at CNN and other publications that in recent days have dug into his stories about his violent youth. “I have no problem with being vetted,” he said. “I do have a problem with being lied about.” He acknowledged specifically the controversy over his claims that he was offered a “full scholarship” to West Point, which Politico reported never happened. —Marina Koren

9:28 pm: I think the Fed is an issue that really does energize the old Ron Paul base, but Rand Paul has had trouble capturing their attention like his father did—perhaps because rather than ending the Fed, he just wants to audit and reform it. —Molly Ball

9:27 pm: At the first break, I'd say that the moderators are indeed delivering a far more policy-focused debate than CNBC—or any other network. There have also been hardly any fireworks, only a brief moment when John Kasich tried and mostly failed to butt in. —David Graham

9:26 pm: Asked about income inequality, Rand Paul criticizes Democratic leadership and could've pivoted to talk about crony capitalism—but instead he pivots to the Federal Reserve, which almost no one watching the debate understands and which ranks very, very low in voter priorities. Does that energize his base to give money? It sure won't help him assemble a majority coalition. —Conor Friedersdorf

9:24pm: Gerard Baker asks Fiorina a pretty tough question, noting how much lower job creation was under George W. Bush than under Presidents Obama and Clinton. Conor's warning about presidential control of the economy notwithstanding, Fiorina doesn't even bother to explain the difference or how she'd explain it in a general election campaign. No matter—the crowd ate her answer up. —David Graham

9:21 pm: Something viewers should keep in mind: The economic policies pursued by the next president are likely to make only small, marginal differences in the economic health of the United States, which will be mostly determined by factors beyond the president's control and beyond his or her understanding. —Conor Friedersdorf

9:19 pm: Jeb Bush’s campaign hired a media trainer since the last debate. Will it make a difference? He’s still stiff and combative—but we’ve got an hour and a half to go. —Priscilla Alvarez

9:18 pm: Sorry, Jeb, you still can't deliver 4 percent growth. —David Graham

9:17 pm: Jeb Bush is immediately relegated to begging-for-airtime status, a harsh indication of his fall in the polls. —Russell Berman

9:16 pm: For the second straight debate, John Kasich is playing the part of the Responsibility Candidate. He calls for restraint in the Republican tax-cut plans, which he says would leave the country in debt just like Democratic spending plans. “We've got to be responsible with what we propose on the tax side,” Kasich urged. —Russell Berman

9:15 pm: Marco Rubio really knocked that ball out of the park on that answer on raising the minimum wage to $15. He tapped into his ability to empathetically talk about the issue before providing a reasoned case against it. If he thought it would legitimately make the lives of America’s poorest better, he would do it, he says. But he thinks building the economy in other ways would be more effective. The strategy was reminiscent of his highly praised comments about the Black Lives Matter movement. —Tyler Bishop

9:14 pm: John Kasich's pet issue is the Balanced Budget Amendment, and his first question is about how he'd go about doing that. His answer is pretty vague: He would lower taxes and lower spending. Who'da thunk? —David Graham

9:13 pm: Marco Rubio offers a much more polished answer on minimum wage than either Donald Trump or Ben Carson. But I no longer know if that sort of polish impresses or just makes people think he sounds like a politician. His line about welders making more than philosophers certainly played well with this audience, what with the way that philosophers are disproportionately cast as icons in American culture. Wait a minute. What? —Conor Friedersdorf

9:12 pm: “We need more welders and less philosophers,” Rubio says. For the record, there 23,210 philosophers in the U.S. and 357,400 welders. —David Graham

9:09 pm: Ben Carson's assertion that a minimum-wage hike will deprive the least advantaged of jobs would seem to appeal to working class Republicans a lot more than Donald Trump's contention that the U.S. can't compete with China if wages are too high. —Conor Friedersdorf

9:08 pm: Contrary to what Ben Carson just said, minimum-wage hikes do not generally result in an increase in unemployment. —David Graham

9:07 pm: Donald Trump really shows off the fact that he is an employer, not an employee, with his first answer about the minimum wage. In a somewhat rambling response, he actually says, “wages too high” and ultimately comes out against any increase in the minimum wage. —Russell Berman

9:05 pm: Neil Cavuto kicks things off with an impressively detailed question about the $15 per hour minimum-wage campaign. —David Graham

9:04 pm: Fox Business get early points for actually starting the debate at about the time it said it would start: 9 p.m. —Russell Berman

9:03 pm: The increasingly melodramatic opening montages of these debates are really something. By the ninth debate, they're going to have to resort to live animal sacrifices to increase the drama. —David Graham

9:02 pm: The night’s liveliest debate, it turns out, won’t include any presidential candidates at all. Instead, it pitted incumbent Louisana Senator David Vitter against Democratic nominee John Bel Edwards. Vitter has been dogged by a prostitution scandal, and Edwards dispensed with subtlety. “You are a liar and you are a cheater,” he said. “And I don’t tolerate that.” It seems unlikely that anything in Milwaukee will come close to matching that. —Yoni Appelbaum

9:00 pm: The longer the Republican race goes on the more incentive some of the candidates have to depart from tactical conservatism and attack rivals, recognizing that eventually, this large field will be winnowed. Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio seem destined for more conflict, as do Donald Trump and Ben Carson. And some candidates at the margins of the stage have little to lose from going on the offensive. Will there be more intra-candidate conflict than before, with Wall Street Journal and Fox News moderators perhaps making pols less inclined to attack the media? We'll know soon. —Conor Friedersdorf

8:58 pm: The Christie-Jindal feud dominated the undercard debate, but the most replayed moment might ultimately belong to Rick Santorum. The former Pennsylvania senator, an afterthought for most of the race, raised his voice to an almost Howard Dean “Scream” level when he talked about how he respected Democrats for how much they want to “fight” Republicans and “take it to us.” The outburst was also odd because coming into the debate, reports were that Santorum had laryngitis. —Russell Berman

8:53 pm: To add to that, the rivalry between  Christie and Jindal isn’t new. It  dates back to when the two were going after the chairmanship of the Republican Governors Association. Christie is new to the undercard debate after low polling numbers disqualified him from the main stage. Christie spoke with ease and, with more time on the clock, had the opportunity to standout. Christie used much of the time to target Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton. “She is the real adversary tonight,” Christie said. It’s unclear if Christie will see a surge as Carly Fiorina did after a strong performance at the undercard debate, but the cut from the main stage certainly didn’t hurt him. —Priscilla Alvarez

8:51 pm: The centerpiece of the undercard was the Christie-Jindal back-and-forth, and the consensus seems to be that both men benefited from it. Christie used the smaller platform to stand out, take the high road, and push his electability argument; Jindal tried mightily to get under Christie's skin and mounted a pointed critique of “big-government Republicans.” Christie didn't ever take Jindal's bait, but Jindal made a strong pitch to ideological conservatives. As many have noted, Christie's argument should play well in New Hampshire, while Jindal is looking for support in Iowa. —Molly Ball

Republican candidates complained bitterly about CNBC’s moderators after the last debate. On Tuesday night, they’ll find out if the team from Fox Business and The Wall Street Journal is more to their liking.

The last time these rivals squared off, they spent more time attacking the media and the moderators than addressing the economy, which was supposed to be the evening’s focus. In the days that followed, the Republican National Committee scrambled to respond to their concerns, even as the candidates plotted to sieze control of the debates for themselves.

Ultimately, though, that plotting fell apart over the simple reality that the candidates are all competing for the same job, and their interests don’t merely diverge—they’re directly opposed. But in the interim, the RNC yanked away a February debate from NBC. And today, it seized another opportunity to make the media squirm. Journalists covering Tuesday’s debate are invited to login to the WiFi by entering the password: StopHillary.

“I am confident we will finally have a debate focused on the economy and financial matters,” RNC Chairman Reince Priebus told its members on Tuesday. The candidates will have 90 seconds, not just 60, to answer questions, and they’ll be given the chance to make closing statements. Whether the candidates on stage share Priebus’s commitment to a “fair and substance-filled debate,” though, or are more intent on attacking each other and playing to the crowd, is another matter entirely.

As my colleague Russell Berman wrote in his preview of the debate, Marco Rubio has surged forward since the last debate, overtaking his onetime mentor Jeb Bush. The Bush campaign and the super PAC with which it does not coordinate (at all, in the slightest, under any circumstances!) have hinted, darkly, about attacking Rubio and exposing his weaknesses. After Bush’s failed effort to drag down Rubio at the last debate, though, it’s unclear whether he intends to do this himself, or leave that work to surrogates and attack ads.

The polls, though, are still topped by Mogul and Eli—a pair of outsider candidates who now have Secret Service protection and the codenames that go with it. (Trump is “Mogul,” of course—presumably, “The Donald” was too obvious. Ben Carson’s new name isn’t a reference to his Yale education; Fox reports agents have been told it means “God is the most high.”)

Sharing the stage with them are Ted Cruz, John Kasich, Rand Paul, and Carly Fiorina. As they fight to hang on for long enough for voters to actually cast their ballots, these four can take solace in the thought that they’ve outperformed Mike Huckabee and Chris Christie, who got bounced off the main stage for the earlier debate. And those two former governors, at least, have avoided the fate of Lindsey Graham and George Pataki, who join Jim Gilmore on the sidelines, excluded even from that first round event.

You can find out more about all these candidates by using our 2016 Cheat Sheet, and track their rises and falls in our interactive graphic charting the frequency of their media mentions. And follow along with us tonight, as we liveblog the debate. —Yoni Appelbaum