This one didn’t quite go according to plan.
And that left even Donald Trump sputtering for a moment during Tuesday night’s debate of Republican presidential candidates in Milwaukee.
Defying expectations, it wasn’t retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson having to answer for his seemingly contradictory statements. It wasn’t former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush further sinking his own campaign. It wasn’t attacks on Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida.
If there was one theme, it was a sudden lack of fear among the Republican field to take on Trump, whose image has suffered in recent polls.
Early on, Ohio Gov. John Kasich boldly went where he had shied away from going before: directly challenging the billionaire reality-TV star.
After Trump reiterated his oft-stated position of deporting the 11 million or so undocumented immigrants in the U.S., Kasich jumped in.
“Come on, folks. 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.”
Not only is the idea impractical, Kasich said, “Think about the families, think about the children.”
Trump fired back with an assertion that’s already been discredited: how much fracking has boosted Ohio’s economy.
Kasich didn’t let go, questioning Trump’s understanding of how fracking really benefits the economy.
“And little false little things, sir, they don’t really work when it comes to the truth,” Kasich said.
Trump sputtered and actually got booed when he said, “I built an unbelievable company worth billions and billions of dollars. I don’t have to hear from this man, believe me. I don’t have to hear from him.”
Kyle Kondik, managing editor of the newsletter Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, said the debate winners and losers weren’t clear. That’s not helpful for lower-polling candidates like Kasich, he said.
“Look, Kasich is totally committed to being the New Hampshire candidate,” Kondik said.
“He wants to be the adult in the room and to portray himself as both conservative but also reasonable. The problem is that he is very likely turning off the more conservative elements of the party, and they dominate the electorates of most of the states that vote before Ohio on March 15.
“Even if Kasich does well in New Hampshire, where does he go after that?”
After taking on Trump, Kasich got aid from an unexpected source: the next speaker, the much-maligned Bush.
“Twelve million illegal immigrants, to send them back, 500,000 a month, is just not possible,” Bush said. “And it’s not embracing American values. And it would tear communities apart. And it would send a signal that we’re not the kind of country that I know America is.
“And even having this conversation sends a powerful signal — they’re doing high-fives in the Clinton campaign right now when they hear this. That’s the problem with this. We have to win the presidency.”
Trump also got boos from the Milwaukee Theater crowd when he tried to silence former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina by saying, “Why does she keep interrupting everybody?”
But Kasich also got booed later in the debate when he tangled with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz over whether to let big banks fail; Kasich said he would try to make people with money in the bank whole.
Mark Caleb Smith, director of the Center for Political Studies at Cedarville University, said Kasich’s strategy was one of “aggressive moderation.”
“He was aggressive by interrupting the moderators and asking for more time directly, and when he was given time to speak, he consistently took more moderate positions compared to anyone else on the stage,” he said.
That strategy may not work, Smith cautioned.
“His arguments may be well-suited for a general election, but will they work for a primary?” he asked. “It seems he is putting all of his hope in the New Hampshire primary, which has been more tolerant of Republican moderation over the years, especially as compared to Iowa. I am just not sure there are enough Republican moderates to win the nomination.”
Carson did get asked about apparent discrepancies in his life story.
“The fact of the matter is, you know, what — we should vet all candidates,” the retired neurosurgeon said. “I have no problem with being vetted. What I do have a problem with is being lied about and then putting that out there as truth.
“And I don’t even mind that so much, if they do it about — with everybody, like people on the other side. But, you know, when I look at somebody like Hillary Clinton, who sits there and tells her daughter and a government official that, no, this was a terrorist attack, and then tells everybody else that it was a video.
“Where I came from, they call that a lie.”
The biggest challenge to Rubio came not from Bush, as anticipated, but from Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who questioned his conservative credentials because of big-ticket spending items in his tax plan.
Perhaps more important for the future of GOP candidates lagging in national polls is a meeting of the Republican National Committee’s debate panel today in Milwaukee. The group not only will discuss the format of future debates, but also whether the qualifying threshold needs to be raised, whether polls in early voting states should be included, and if the undercard debate should be dropped.
The next GOP event is set for Dec. 15 in Las Vegas, sponsored by CNN and Salem Radio.
Jessica Wehrman of the Dispatch Washington bureau contributed to this story.
This article was written by Darrel Rowland from The Columbus Dispatch and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.