Hopefuls trade barbs but sidestep policies

Third Republican presidential debate lacked substance on economic policy front: Experts

The third Republican debate produced the most fireworks thus far.

Experts tipped the two Hispanic candidates for president - Florida Senator Marco Rubio and Texas Senator Ted Cruz - as winners in a confrontation rich with personal barbs but short on substantial policy discussion, particularly on the economy.

Right off the bat, Ohio Governor John Kasich attacked the front runners, real estate mogul Donald Trump and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson. He categorised them as candidates who "cannot do this job" because they were proposing "fantasy" policies.

Former Florida governor Jeb Bush, once hailed as the prospective nominee but now floundering in the polls, pounced on his former protege Rubio. Mr Bush agreed with an editorial in Fort Lauderdale's Sun Sentinel, which said Mr Rubio should resign because he had missed too many votes in the Senate due to campaigning.

The heated exchanges on stage in Boulder, Colorado, came at a time when candidates - almost three months away from the first primary vote in Iowa - are vying to stay at the top of the leader board, which is still being dominated by Mr Trump and Dr Carson.

Dr Carson, in fact, has pulled ahead in the latest New York Times/CBS News poll released on Tuesday, with 26 per cent of support, pushing Mr Trump into second place with 22 per cent - only the second time this has happened in a national poll since July.

Mr Rubio, Mr Bush and Mr Cruz trail in the single digits with 8 per cent, 7 per cent and 4 per cent respectively.

"I don't see the current front runner losing much ground after this debate," said Dr Jacob Neiheisel, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Buffalo.

On the whole, experts also agreed that the debate left much to be desired, especially on the economic policy front.

Professor of economics Jeffrey Zax from the University of Colorado Boulder, said: "Voters who wanted to hear an intelligent discussion about the economy and the government's role in it got nothing but pre-rehearsed slogans that were, for the most part, unsupported and unsupportable."

Mr Cruz scored big with an early attack on the CNBC moderators of the debate - a hit with the partisan audience of mostly Republican voters.

"The questions that have been asked so far in this debate illustrate why the American people don't trust the media," he said about the number of questions, including one which referred to Mr Trump's presidential bid as the "comic book version" of a presidential campaign.

"How about talking about the substantive issues people care about?" asked Mr Cruz, who was also one of the few candidates who clearly articulated his flat tax plan within the first half hour of the debate.

Mr Rubio also scored an early win when confronted with criticism from Mr Bush about his voting record in the Florida Senate.

"The only reason you are doing it now is because we are running for the same position and someone has convinced you that attacking me is going to help you," Mr Rubio said, turning to face Mr Bush.

Taking the higher ground, he added: "My campaign is going to be about the future of America; it is not going to be about attacking anyone else on the stage."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 30, 2015, with the headline 'Hopefuls trade barbs but sidestep policies'. Print Edition | Subscribe