The top Republican presidential candidates said Tuesday they would reform the country's tax code and not raise the minimum wage, as they gathered in the north-central city of Milwaukee, Wisconsin for a debate focusing on the economy.
Billionaire Donald Trump said taxes and wages already are too high, making it difficult for the United States to compete with the world. In a new poll released before the debate, Trump was virtually tied with neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who said every rise in the minimum wage comes with a corresponding rise in the number of people without jobs, particularly in the black community.
Florida Senator Marco Rubio advocated tax and regulation reforms and an increased focus on education in order to raise wages for millions of people.
Eight Republicans are participating in the party's fourth debate, based on a minimum standing of at least 2.5 percent in the latest public opinion polls.
On immigration, Trump said the U.S. has no choice but to deport those illegally in the country.
"We are a country of laws," Trump said. "We need borders. We will have a wall. The wall will be built. The wall will be successful, and if you think walls don't work, ask Israel."
Texas Senator Ted Cruz said it is possible for the U.S. to embrace legal immigration while also enforcing the rule of law, and that "every sovereign nation secures its borders."
But others in the field disagreed, led by Ohio Governor John Kasich, who said any plan to deport the 11 million illegal immigrants currently in the U.S. is "silly." He advocated a system in which those who are law abiding can pay a penalty to stay. Former Florida governor Jeb Bush said deporting illegal immigrants would "tear families apart," advocated allowing people to earn legal status over time.
The most heated exchanges in the debate came as Kentucky Senator Rand Paul questioned Rubio on the defense budget, saying it was not possible to be a conservative while being liberal on military spending.
"I know the world is a safer and better place when America is the strongest military power in the world," Rubio shot back.
Trump said the U.S. needs to make its military "bigger, better and stronger" than ever before. He also supported all of the Republican tax plans over what he called "the mess" in place now.
The candidates proposed reforming the way Americans pay taxes with most of the plans involving systems where everyone pays the same tax rate. Cruz wants to shut down the Internal Revenue Service and the Departments of Commerce, Energy, and Housing and Urban Development. His plan would also tax only imports and not exports.
Trump expressed support for Russia's military actions in Syria while questioning the aid being sent to moderate rebels. He said the U.S. cannot be the world's police.
Bush, who along with Kasich and businesswoman Carly Fiorina called for a no-fly zone in Syria, said America needs to be a leader and that it is "tragic" Iraq and others are talking to Russia.
"We are not going to be the world's police, but we sure as heck better be the world's leader," Bush said.
Fiorina called for rebuilding missile defense systems in Poland, carrying out military exercises in the Baltic and adding thousands more troops in Germany to send a message to Russian President Vladimir Putin that the U.S. stands with its allies.
Kasich endorsed providing arms for people in Ukraine to "fight for themselves." On China, Kasich he would respond to cyberattacks by destroying the mechanisms used to break into computer systems. He also praised Obama for sending a U.S. ship to sail in the waters near the Spratly islands in the South China Sea, an area he said China does not own.
Two other candidates — New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee — were demoted after the first three debates to the "undercard debate" held earlier in the evening. It also featured former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal.
All four took the opportunity early in their session to promote plans they claim will make the U.S. tax code fairer. Huckabee even proposed getting rid of the Internal Revenue Service, which is responsible for tax collection and tax law enforcement.
Christie and Santorum shared their distaste for the Federal Reserve, the nation's central bank. The two claimed that the Fed has kept interest rates artificially low to support President Barack Obama.
Trump made similar claims recently. At the time, White House spokesman Josh Earnest insisted the Fed acts independently, saying the administration "goes to great lengths" to ensure that the Fed can make decisions based solely on the economy's interests and to prevent those decisions from being influenced by politics.
Christie, trying to have a breakout night after being taken off the main stage, focused much of his attention on Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton, whom he called "the real enemy. [She's] coming for your wallet, everybody. Don't worry about Huckabee or Jindal, worry about her."
Christie's jab at Clinton followed a back-and-forth argument between Jindal andHuckabee over their records as governors.
Looking straight into the camera, Christie said, "If you think Mike Huckabee won't be the kind of president who will cut back spending, or Chris Christie, or John Kasich, wait till you see what Hillary Clinton will do to this country. She will drown us in debt. She is the real adversary tonight."
Debate sponsor Fox Business promised this debate, focused on the economy, would be an improvement over October’s debate, which set off a round of criticism from the candidates and conservatives, who said it lacked substance.
This one will be the “real debate about our economy and future,” said Fox in a commercial for the debate, indicating that the cable network would aim to focus on the issues. But the run-up to the debate was about anything but.
For starters, there was speculation about the smaller number of participants. Will it make a difference?
Carson under scrutiny
A new McClatchy/Marist poll, released just before the debate, showed Carson and Trump still running neck-and-neck. Carson had 24 percent support, and Trump had 23 percent. Rubio was a distant third with 12 percent, while Cruz and Bush were tied for fourth at 8 percent.
Carson has been on the defensive in recent days after numerous questions about incidents in his past, including a claim that he once was offered a full scholarship to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York.
He can expect more questions about his past during the debate, but it also appears he will be ready with some feisty comebacks. At a Friday news conference in Florida, Carson said he wanted the focus on unfair treatment by the media." All of you guys trying to pile on is actually going to help me because when I go out to these book signings and I see these thousands of people, they say, ‘Do not let the media get you down.' "
Trump was in the spotlight once again as he hosted NBC's "Saturday Night Live," even as anti-Trump protesters made their presence felt on the streets outside. Although one of the highest-rated SNL shows in recent years, a lot of critics thought the Trump-hosted show was dull.
Will he be dull in the debate? Observers say he tends to fall back when policy matters are discussed in detail, rasing questions about his seriousness as a candidate.
Rubio was considered a winner in last month's Republican debate, although most of the candidates complained that the questions from the CNBC moderators were biased and unfair.
Rubio may well be under fire for his use of a Florida Republican Party credit card during his time in state office. Rubio released credit card records this weekend to head off criticism.
The Bush reboot
Tuesday's debate also will be a test for Bush, who has slipped in recent polls and remains focused on a reboot of his campaign, now running under the theme of "Jeb Can Fix It. "I will not trade in an optimistic outlook to put on the cloak of an angry agitator, and I will not make anyone feel small so I can fee big," Bush said during his relaunch in Florida.
A new book about the candid opinions of his father, former President George H.W. Bush, has become a distraction and a reminder of the unpopular presidency of his brother, George W. Bush, said analyst Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute.
"[Jeb] Bush has the dilemma right now that he is trapped in a Bush body and simply cannot and will not gain the kind of distance from the policies of his brother and father that is required if you are going to get back to a dominant position," Ornstein said.
VOA correspondent Jim Malone contributed to this report.