The fourth debate among the leading Republican candidates for president filled the historic Milwaukee Theatre with cheers, laughter and occasional boos, but it probably did not alter the dynamics among the eight featured contestants.
No one seemed to stumble or scintillate so notably as to change the pecking order with the first voting, now fewer than a dozen weeks away in the Iowa precinct caucuses.
Once again, the two-hour clash was a competition for the conservative mantle, with candidates advertising their stands on issues from the minimum wage to bank bailouts and tax policy. One of the sharpest areas of disagreement was the use of American military might overseas — whether to destroy ISIS or to counter the ambitions of Russia and China.
Several candidates talked of their plans for overhauling the tax code, all of which offered cuts in income tax rates, and some of which abolished payroll taxes and estates. Several embraced the concept of a flat tax, where all taxpayers would pay at the same rate regardless of income and where all deductions would be gone. All the candidates pledged to reduce the size and costs of the federal government, and some promised to "abolish the IRS" entirely.
As in the earlier debates, much of the limelight was absorbed by two senators, Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas. A third senator, Rand Paul of Kentucky, also had his moments, sounding more like his libertarian father, Ron Paul, than he has in previous debates. He was rewarded for this with both cheers and jeers from the energetic and vocal audience.
"Marco, Marco," Paul cried at one point, "what is conservative about spending another trillion dollars on a federal program without paying for it, or adding a trillion dollars to the military without paying for it?"
"We can't even have an economy if we're not safe," Rubio shot back. "We've got ISIS beheading people and crucifying Christians."
Businessman Donald Trump and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson were entitled to lecterns at center stage because they have continued to lead in the polls this month. But neither was a dominant element in the mix on this night. Carson spoke for nearly one minute less than any other candidate, keeping his answers short and making no effort to interrupt when others were talking.
His longest answer related to his recent controversies over stories in his various autobiographical writings and speeches. Carson said he did not mind being vetted by the media, but "what I do mind is being lied about." The audience applauded, and none of Carson's rivals took him on. The debate moderators did not follow up.
Neither did the subject of Rubio's financial miscues back in Florida get an airing by anyone on stage. The interviewing journalists were Maria Bartiromo and Neil Cavuto of Fox Business Network and Gerard Baker, editor-in-chief of the Wall Street Journal.
Perhaps the greatest difference between this and the preceding three GOP debates was the attitude of the moderators. Although some of their questions could be called probing, none was accusatory. Gone was the slightly contemptuous tone heard at times in earlier debates.
Cruz, who at the last debate delivered a jeremiad against "the liberal bias of the mainstream media," confined himself to asking how journalists would respond to illegal immigration if the new arrivals all had journalism degrees and wanted their jobs. "Then we would see the truth," Cruz said.
Answering the first question of the night, Carson said he would not support a raise in the federal minimum wage because it would kill jobs at the low end of the pay scale. At times in the past, Carson has seemed more ambivalent on the issue.
On this night, only Ohio Gov. John Kasich spoke up in favor of a "moderate increase" in the wage, and then at the state level. "My dad carried mail on his back," he said by way of explanation, "and my grandfather was a miner who died of black lung."
The tallest person on stage, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, handled his questions with aplomb and won audience approval in doing so. But he had no single moment of electric connection or rebuttal worthy of the highlight reel. Many of his answers read well in the transcript, through much of the evening he wore an expression that suggested impatience and discomfort.
Bush supported Kasich in a side debate they had with Trump over the idea of deporting 11 million people currently in the U.S. illegally. Trump continued to insist this would be practical, while Bush joined his Ohio colleague in ridiculing the idea.
Also frustrated at several points in the debate was Carly Fiorina, the former tech executive known for her salient and super-articulate sales pitches. At several junctures, she was able to tick off a catalog of countries in the Middle East — or of political leaders she has dealt with in that region. She trained her fire on Obamacare and on Hillary Clinton's tenure as secretary of state. She did not reprise the attack on Planned Parenthood that seemed to cost her altitude in the polls after an earlier debate.
Two candidates who had been part of the first three debates were not on hand for the main event. Chris Christie and Mike Huckabee, the current and former governors of New Jersey and Arkansas, respectively, failed to meet the 2.5 percent level of support in the past four national polls — the standard set by Fox Business Network and the Wall Street Journal, the co-sponsors of the event.
Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.