Jeb Bush came into Tuesday’s Republican debate wounded and left it wilted while all of front-runner Ben Carson’s rivals decided not to press him on inconsistencies about his past.
Bush’s weak performance will only fuel the storyline about whether his campaign can remain viable.
Compared to the previous three debates, the fourth one in Milwaukee was sedate, as the flamboyant Donald Trump, the other front-runner, did not engage much as the questions kept more to substance than style.
Hosted by the Fox Business Network and the Wall Street Journal, the eight-candidate debate focused mainly on taxes and the economy, and the questions were not crafted to be excessively provocative.
The rivals were shy — very conservative you might say — went it came to picking fights in this fourth round.
The moderators played it safe after a chaotic and controversial third debate in Boulder, where the CNBC questioners were criticized by the Republican National Committee and the candidates.
There was one main detour off the policy questions and into Carson’s story about being offered a scholarship to West Point though the retired neurosurgeon never applied to the tuition-free school.
“I said that I was offered a scholarship to West Point, that is the words that they used,” Carson said, referring to a backstory he never explained in the debate.
Instead, Carson pivoted and complained, “We have to start treating people the same, and finding out what people really think and what they’re made of.”
And with that, everyone moved on, giving the soft-spoken Carson a big break.
Carson went on to call for the end of the popular home mortgage and charitable donation deductions on federal income tax returns — a tax break enjoyed by a wide swath of Americans, no matter their politics — which Congress shows no inclination to ax.
During the debate, Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton was bashed, but not with any unusual vigor, since the candidates already declared in the previous debates that it would be a disaster if she were to become president.
Marco Rubio, the Florida senator, was the winner, a master of the format, delivering a series of well crafted mini-stump speeches and never allowing himself to be tackled or pinned.
Talking about the need for more vocational education, Rubio offered up one of the lines of the night: “Welders make more money than philosophers. We need more welders and less philosophers.”
A big exchange came when Rubio and Rand Paul, the Kentucky senator, clashed over defense spending and entitlements.
“Marco, Marco, how is it conservative to add a trillion-dollar expenditure to the federal government?” Paul said. “Can you be a conservative and liberal on military spending?”
Rubio said Paul was a “dedicated isolationist.”
Bush, under enormous pressure to hit a home run and jolt his sagging candidacy, found it so difficult to get a word in that at one point Trump jumped in, supposedly to help.
“You should let Jeb speak,” Trump lectured Rubio.
In making the friendly gesture, he only diminished the stature of the former Florida governor. Later, Trump earned some boos from the audience when he said of Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard CEO, “Why does she keep interrupting everybody?
John Kasich, the Ohio governor, has the most to gain if Bush continues to fade because he occupies the same ideological “lane” as a conservative realist.
“Come on, folks,” Kasich said about Trump’s plan to deport illegal immigrants. “We all know you can’t pick them up and ship them across, back across the border. It’s a silly argument. It is not an adult argument. It makes no sense.”
Bashing the media is usually a no-lose proposition in a GOP debate, and Ted Cruz, the Texas senator, said the mainstream press would see immigration policy in a different light “if a bunch of people with journalism degrees were coming over and driving down the wages in the press.”
Earlier Tuesday evening, GOP presidential hopeful Chris Christie stood out in the GOP underdog debate for his focus on Clinton rather than the three rivals who have no chance of winning the nomination.
Follow Lynn Sweet on Twitter: @LynnSweet