The top Republican presidential candidates on Wednesday dug into government spending, debt and taxation during the party’s third presidential debate.
The 10 leading candidates out of 14 vying for the Republican nomination debated in Boulder, Colorado, opening with a discussion of their proposals to lower taxes and pay off the deficit.
The debate, hosted by the cable business news channel CNBC, was heavy on questions related to the candidates’ economic policies. The candidates, who will face voters for the first time in about three months, hit on the themes of cutting taxes, balancing the budget and addressing government debt.
Several candidates said they opposed a tentative two-year budget deal passed this week by the House of Representatives because it lifts mandatory spending caps that have been in place for years.
“Right and left are spending us into oblivion,” said Kentucky Senator Rand Paul. “I’m worried about bankrupting the American people.”
Paul said he would be on the Senate floor on Thursday to try to block the measure from passing.
Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who this week pulled ahead of businessman Donald Trump in a national opinion poll for the first time, touted his plan to create a flat tax of about 15 per cent.
He said it would work because it would be combined with spending cuts and getting rid of “all the deductions and all the loopholes” in the US tax code.
“You also have to do some strategic cutting in several places,” Carson said.
Former Florida governor Jeb Bush, who recently shook up his campaign organization, had another unremarkable performance.
Bush, who was considered the clear Republican front-runner when he entered the race last June, has fallen behind in the polls, which show him with average support of just above 7 per cent, far behind the competition.
During the debate he was asked about a comment he made recently about having better things to do than being demonized on the campaign trail. He clarified Wednesday that what he meant was: “Don’t vote for me if you want to keep the gridlock in Washington, DC.”
Bush engaged in one of the sharpest exchanges of the debate when he attacked Florida Senator Marco Rubio for missing votes in the Senate while campaigning. He said a lot of people in Florida want a senator who will work for them every day.
Rubio responded by saying Bush had chosen to point out his record, but not those of other senators who missed votes while running for president.
He then pivoted and said his campaign was not about attacking fellow Republicans, and that he would “continue to have tremendous admiration and respect for governor Bush.”
Rubio said he would focus on the front-runner in the Democratic field, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, and touted his policies as pro-family.
He said American families are being hurt by slow economic growth, and that the country would only get more of that “if we elect a big government liberal like Hillary Clinton to the White House.”
The only woman in the Republican field, businesswoman Carly Fiorina, also went after Clinton.
“I can assure you I am Hillary Clinton’s worst nightmare,” Fiorina said. “And in your heart of hearts, you cannot wait to see a debate between Hillary Clinton and Carly Fiorina.”
But the former chief executive of Hewlett-Packard was again forced to defend her record at the company, which laid off tens of thousands of employees during her tenure.
She stood by her record of making “tough calls in tough times” and said that politicians should be held to the same level of accountability as corporate executives.
Trump, who enjoyed frontrunner status for weeks before Carson’s surge, said he could fix the US government’s 19-trillion-dollar debt but did not specify how.
“Boy am I good at solving debt problems,” Trump said. “No one can solve them like me.”
He also took credit for negotiating with the network to ensure the debate was only two hours. Candidates and audience members criticized the length of the prior debate, which lasted more than three hours.
“Everybody said it was going to be three hours, three and a half … and in about two minutes I renegotiated it so we can get the hell out of here. Not bad,” Trump said.