By Philip Elliott/TIME
The early minutes of Wednesday night’s Republican presidential debate about economic policy got off to a rough start, with moderators questioning the details of the candidates’ tax plans and the rivals leveling blistering criticism of each other.
As the 10 leading candidates sparred over the economy, it was clear that the two who top the polls, Donald Trump and Ben Carson, were struggling to make the math work for their economic ideas. One moderator asked Trump if he was a “comic book” version of a candidate. Another moderator told Carson that his ideas were a mess: “I looked at the numbers.” A third host challenged Carly Fiorina, who proposed a three-page tax code: “Are you using really small type?”
It was a brutal reminder that campaign-style campaign promises seldom make good policy. Ohio Gov. John Kasich, shared the host’s disbelief. “This is the fantasy,” Kasich said of his rivals’ tax plans. “Why don’t we put a chicken in every pot in these fantasy tax schemes?”
Kasich was among the most vocal in criticizing his party’s economic policy ideas that even Republican economists have called unrealistic. “Folks, we’ve got to wake up. We cannot elect someone who does not know how to do the job,” erupted Kasich, a former House Budget Committee chairman
Trump didn’t bother responding to the specifics. Instead, he hit Kasich for his time at Lehman Brothers. “He was on the board and he was a managing general partner,” Trump smacked Kasich. Kasich was not, in fact, on the board.
That negative tone quickly escalated. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush criticized former mentee Sen. Marco Rubio for missing votes in the Senate. Indeed, Rubio has one of the worst attendance records in the Senate, and Rubio is not seeking a second term because he deeply dislikes the chamber.
“This was a six-year term. You should be showing up for work,” Bush said. “Resign and let someone else take the job.”
Rubio said Bush didn’t have a problem with other Senators who missed votes when they were seeking the nomination. “Someone has convinced you that attacking me is going to help you,” Rubio shot back.
Heading into Wednesday night’s debate, Trump had slipped from atop the polls in Iowa and was slowly sliding down in national surveys, too. Increasingly, The Donald has sounded more like someone who is going through the five stages of grief: he’s moved past denial to anger, with bargaining right around the corner. Strategists for his rivals worry that the brash billionaire is incapable of accepting his pending losses, and might lash out in ways that will leave the GOP unable to recover.
“What the hell are you people doing to me?” Trump half-jokingly asked an audience in Iowa on Tuesday. “If I lose Iowa, I will never speak to you people again.”
That anger and frustration was flying into Colorado with Trump, where he is meeting nine rivals on the main debate stage, after four lower-polling foes faced each other in a pregame event. All eyes were on Ben Carson, the celebrated retired neurosurgeon whose faith has helped knock Trump from the top polling status in three Iowa polls and in some national ones, too.
Clustered near each other in the middle of the pack, Rubio and Bush appeared ready to break their unofficial détente. Fiorina, who used two stellar debate performances so far to build momentum, was looking to reclaim her luster. And Sen. Ted Cruz, the Texas firebrand and tea party darling, stood ready with his snarky one-liners the his advisers hope will help him collect the support of Trump and Carson should they falter and exit the race.
But it is Trump who continues to drive the conversations. The billionaire defied political logic through the summer and early fall. His insults to immigrants only won him more support in the GOP, even as business partners scurried away. He is set to host Saturday Night Live on NBC, a network that canned him over his hostility toward immigrants in the country illegally. Immigrant-rights groups are already planning protests of the Peacock Network over that coming turn on Nov. 7.
Advisers to Trump’s rivals worry that he might try to recreate his summer magic with even more invectives. He’s already gone after Columba Bush, a Mexican-American immigrant, and Fiorina’s appearance. He’s mocked Paul’s hair and questioned Carson’s faith. “He’s completely unpredictable,” says one Republican strategist whose candidate already has dropped out. “And that makes him dangerous.”