Rubio, Cruz have strong performances

Sens. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioRyan pledges 'entitlement reform' in 2018 Richard Gere welcomes lawmakers' words of support for Tibet Dem lawmaker gives McConnell's tax reform op-ed a failing grade MORE (Fla.) and Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzDebbie Wasserman Schultz marks 10 years as breast cancer survivor Foreign agent registration is no magical shield against Russian propaganda Let Trump be Trump and he'll sail through 2020 MORE (Texas) seized leading roles in the Republican presidential debate Tuesday night in Milwaukee, an event that was more substantive than the three previous GOP clashes this cycle but that also offered fewer fireworks.

Both senators have been on the rise in recent polls and seem likely to continue that ascent.

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Rubio had strong moments on everything from education to the threat posed by Russian president Vladimir Putin, while also earning at least an honorable draw with Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulLexington mayor launches bid for Congress Trump-free Kennedy Center Honors avoids politics Meet the Iran hawk who could be Trump's next secretary of State MORE (Ky.) in an extended, heated exchange about military spending and budgetary prudence. 

“I know that Rand is a committed isolationist. I’m not,” Rubio shot back at one point.

Cruz also interjected in that discussion, saying, to evident approval from the crowd: “You think defending this nation is expensive? Try not defending it.” 

And the Texan also found a creative way to link two common Republican concerns — illegal immigration and the purported liberal bias of the media — when he suggested that coverage of border security would be much different if people entering the United States illegally held “journalism degrees” and were going to drive wages down in the news industry.

The debate, however, had fewer standout moments than any to date. That might have been in part because of the performance of real estate mogul Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpHouse Democrat slams Donald Trump Jr. for ‘serious case of amnesia’ after testimony Skier Lindsey Vonn: I don’t want to represent Trump at Olympics Poll: 4 in 10 Republicans think senior Trump advisers had improper dealings with Russia MORE, which was restrained by his standards. Trump did engage in a controversial jab at businesswoman Carly Fiorina, whom he accused of interrupting too much; he also crossed verbal swords with Ohio Gov. John Kasich.

But Trump fell silent for significant stretches of the debate and at other times seemed tentative. Asked about the threat posed by Russia, for example, his answer veered into an insistence that the United States “should have kept the oil” after invading Iraq.

Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who is neck and neck with Trump at the top of the polls, was similarly understated, aside from some early jabs at the media. Carson has been under pressure for days as questions have been raised — unfairly, he says — about elements of his autobiography. 

He started the debate ruling out raising the federal minimum wage, despite indicating earlier this year that he supported such a measure.

Carson’s closing statement also offered a stark departure from the optimism of his rivals, painting a gloomy picture of an America riven by ills including drug addiction and abortion.

The debate also seemed less likely than previous clashes to affect the GOP standings in any meaningful way. That will be welcome news for Trump and Carson, who face no more debates until Dec. 15. Each man has more than twice the support of third-placed Rubio in the RealClearPolitics (RCP) average of national polls, so neither has an incentive to do anything dramatic.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush was much more in need of a game-changing moment on Tuesday evening. He did not appear to get one.

Bush improved upon his soporific showings in the first three debates, delivering an effective early line that mocked Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonGrassley blasts Democrats over unwillingness to probe Clinton GOP lawmakers cite new allegations of political bias in FBI Top intel Dem: Trump Jr. refused to answer questions about Trump Tower discussions with father MORE for suggesting President Obama’s economic performance deserved an A grade. 

“It may be the best that Hillary Clinton can do, but it is not the best America can do,” Bush said.

But he was sidelined for long stretches of the debate, and no moment arose that seemed likely to turn around a campaign that has dramatically underperformed expectations.

Paul also imposed himself to a far greater extent than in previous clashes, but whether that matters for a candidate who is drawing only 3 percent support, according to the RCP national average, remains to be seen.

The main debate was also notable for what didn’t happen. In stark contrast to the most recent bout, broadcast by CNBC, there was little contentiousness between the moderators and the candidates. The three co-moderators — Fox Business Network’s Neil Cavuto and Maria Bartiromo, and Gerard Baker of The Wall Street Journal — stuck to neutral but serious questions about the minimum wage, taxation, entitlement reform and small businesses, among other topics.

Trump was also in the firing line much less often than he has been previously. Kasich and Bush both suggested that his plan to deport millions of illegal immigrants was unrealistic. Paul implied that Trump might have mistakenly believed China was among the signatories to the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. 

But the exchanges created a few sparks rather than anything truly explosive.

The same could be said of the debate as a whole. With the Iowa caucuses fewer than 90 days away, the leading contenders will be happy enough with that outcome.