The Republicans wanted more substance, more detail, more meat in the debates. And in Milwaukee - a city that takes pride in the sausages it produces - this was much more satisfying.

The format probably helped. There were eight candidates on the stage, down from the unwieldy 10 in the last debate. That gave the candidates more time and, crucially, gave the moderators more openings to drill down and demand to know how plans will be funded and where cuts will be made.

This debate concentrated on the economy. And for all the power that the US president has over foreign policy, this is where the interests of most voters lie.

Sometimes there was agreement, other times they ridiculed and dismissed the ideas of their opponents. But this debate, more than the previous three, highlighted strengths and exposed weaknesses.

Increased scrutiny

Donald Trump was not the distinctive voice he has been. One of Ted Cruz's campaign team members told me before the debate that the high ratings the previous events had attracted were all about the businessman and his bluster, personality and profile.

On stage in the Milwaukee theatre, however, he had the slogans and the confidence, but struggled on detail. On a night when he had to establish that his campaign was not all about publicity, that he wanted to be president, and more importantly, show he could be president, he fell short.

Neurosurgeon Ben Carson managed to make a joke about the increased scrutiny that comes from being the front-runner, and dealt with a softball question about his history and public statements, but he, too, struggled on policy questions. He gave meandering answers on the use of special forces to fight ISIL in Syria and on financial bailouts, and struggled to show he had more to offer than an inspiring personal story.


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Jeb Bush was strong on immigration, chastising others for suggesting that the US' 11 million undocumented migrants should be deported. After three poor debates, many people felt that he needed a big performance to save his campaign. He didn't get that but has perhaps done enough to stop the bleeding and the suggestions that his campaign was on death watch.

John Kasich was also strong on policy, criticising tax plans he said were unrealistic. But at other points he seemed abrasive. And while that may seem fine in a big auditorium, it will play less well in the coziness of someone's living room.

Consistent performer

The most consistent performer has been Marco Rubio, the Florida senator. He, again, took the questions and talked about how this was a vote for the future, his young face shining with hope and expectation. His answers were polished and smooth. His numbers will continue to rise, but soon he'll be asked for more than hope and a smile. He will need to provide details for his policies.

Rand Paul had perhaps his best performance so far. The Kentucky senator argued strongly against military intervention unless absolutely necessary and criticised others for pushing for higher military spending. This will energise his base and that is enough to keep him in the race.

Criticising Clinton

For the others, there was no huge moment. Businesswoman Carly Fiorina persistently ignored the bell telling her that she had exceeded her time. Cruz, the Texas senator, was solid and polished apart from when he named the five government departments he would close and listing commerce twice.

Each candidate took it in turns to criticise and attack Hillary Clinton, the presumed Democratic nominee.

No one made any horrible mistakes but some were better than others. And that's the challenge they face. Whoever wins this contest then has to be better than her.

Source: Al Jazeera