MILWAUKEE — Republican presidential hopeful Ben Carson lashed out at the press and former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in the same swipe Tuesday in the fourth primary-season debate, saying he can stand up to media scrutiny but wants to make sure journalists treat her similarly for her words on the Benghazi terrorist attack.
In one of the feistiest debates of the year, Republicans clashed over how to handle illegal immigrants, with Ohio Gov. John Kasich and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush insisting that those in the U.S. illegally need to be granted legal status, and businessman Donald Trump saying that’s unfair to those waiting to come legally.
The candidates also turned their fire on Democrats, drawing sharp distinctions between their own economic policies and President Obama’s, which they said has devastated the country. Mrs. Clinton, the Democratic presidential front-runner, also was a target.
Mr. Carson, pushing back against questions from the press poking at the details of his life story, said he has “no problem with being vetted” but said he does object to “being lied about, and then putting that out there as true.”
“I don’t even mind that so much if they do it with everybody, like people on the other side,” he said — pointing specifically at Mrs. Clinton, who he said misled the country when she publicly blamed the 2012 attack on an anti-Islam video while privately emailing her daughter that it was a terrorist-orchestrated assault.
“Where I came from, they call that a lie,” he said.
Immigration has been a dividing line within the Republican Party for years, and it surged to the forefront of the debate after a federal appeals court Monday blocked Mr. Obama’s 2014 deportation amnesty, saying he broke immigration law.
But Mr. Kasich and Mr. Bush said the ruling only increases pressure on Republicans to come up with their own plan to grant illegal immigrants legal status.
“We all know you can’t pick them up and ship them back across the border,” Mr. Kasich said, calling Mr. Trump’s get-tough stance “a silly argument.”
Mr. Trump fired back, calling Mr. Kasich “a pinhead” for how he has run Ohio, and saying former President Dwight D. Eisenhower managed to kick out more than 1 million illegal immigrants during his tenure, and the U.S. needs to do it again.
“We have no choice,” he said.
The politics of the debate boiled over, with Mr. Bush saying Mrs. Clinton and her aides were “high-fiving one another” over the internal party fight, figuring that Hispanic voters will punish Republicans for the tenor of their immigration comments.
Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas retorted, “The Democrats are laughing because if Republicans join Democrats as the party of amnesty, we will lose.
“We’re tired of being told we’re anti-immigrant. It’s offensive,” he said, adding that the debate often ignores the effects of illegal immigration on American jobs.
“I would say the politics of it would be very, very, different if a bunch of lawyers or bankers were crossing the Rio Grande — or if a bunch of people with journalism degrees were coming over and driving down the wages in the press,” said Mr. Cruz, noting that he was the son of a Cuban immigrant.
The debate, airing on the Fox Business Network, delved more deeply into policy than the previous three debates.
That was in part a result of the narrowed field, with just eight candidates on stage for the prime-time debate, rather than the 10 or 11 who participated in previous debates. The economic subject matter also lent itself to intense debates over tax cuts.
Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican, defended his child tax credit as good policy, saying struggling families need more help to pay for one of their biggest costs.
Sen. Rand Paul shot back, saying that Mr. Rubio’s tax cuts, combined with his demand for increased defense spending, would bankrupt the country.
“Marco, how’s it conservative to add a trillion-dollar expenditure to the federal government?” he demanded.
Businesswoman Carly Fiorina, meanwhile, railed against big government, which she said was crushing American innovation. She singled out Obamacare, a tax code that is thousands of pages long, reams of federal regulations and “government bureaucrats who don’t do their jobs well and are not held accountable.”
Mr. Kasich repeatedly scolded his fellow candidates for what he said was a too-harsh approach that didn’t take into account real people who need the government’s aid. He said that as a second-term governor, he has learned that the chief executive needs to respond when a crisis hits.
“Philosophy doesn’t work when you run something,” he said, chiding Mr. Cruz, who said as president he wouldn’t bail out banks in another financial crisis.
Mr. Kasich, though, struggled to answer when Mr. Cruz turned the question back on him, saying he would try to separate out depositors who need the money from the wealthy investors who could stand to take the hit from the bank failure.
At another point Mr. Trump tangled with Mr. Bush and Mrs. Fiorina over Syria and U.S. world leadership, saying he welcomed Russia’s involvement in Syria, calling the Kremling an ally in the fight against against the Islamic State.
Mr. Trump said he connected with Russian President Vladimir Putin as they waited for recent a “60 Minutes” interview — prompting Mrs. Fiorina to say she’s had a “private” meeting with Mr. Putin and the U.S. shouldn’t even be talking to him right now, but should instead be building up troops in Europe and conducting military exercises in the region to show strength.
The face-off gave the candidates a last chance to solidify their positions or improve their standings in front of a national TV audience before a more than monthlong wait until the next debate Dec. 15 in Las Vegas.
Before Wednesday night, the race had largely stabilized, with Mr. Trump and Mr. Carson running neck and neck at the front of the pack; Mr. Rubio and Mr. Cruz vying for third place; and Mr. Bush struggling to get back into the mix.
The jostling at the top of the heap provoked Mr. Trump to turn his trademark sneering attacks on Mr. Carson. He joined in the rush of media outlets to challenge events from Mr. Carson’s life story as told in his 1996 autobiography “Gifted Hands,” which chronicled his rise from poverty in a Detroit ghetto to an acclaimed pediatric neurosurgeon at Johns Hopkins Hospital.
One of the news reports questioned Mr. Carson’s claim that as a ninth-grader he tried to stab a classmate but the knife was deflected by the other boy’s belt buckle. The incident marked a turning point in Mr. Carson’s life, as he began working to overcome a violent temper that could have been his downfall.
Two hours ahead of the prime-time debate, four candidates squared off in an undercard debate, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie — who was kicked off the main stage because of low poll numbers — dominated the affair, blasting Mrs. Clinton for what he described as a big-government economic agenda and insisting Republicans should be fighting her, not one another.
At one point, he rebuked his fellow undercard candidates after a sharp exchange between former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal over which one cut the size of state government.
“The bottom line is believe me, Hillary Clinton is coming for your wallet, everybody. Don’t worry about Huckabee or Jindal; worry about her,” Mr. Christie said.
Mr. Jindal at one point fired back at Mr. Christie, saying he has governed his state like a “big-government Republican.”
Mr. Christie replied that nobody in New Jersey would “call me a liberal.”
Former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania was also on stage for the undercard debate.
Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and former New York Gov. George E. Pataki, who had been in previous lower-tier debates, were bounced this time because of poor polling. Former Virginia Gov. James S. Gilmore III has never polled well enough to be included in the debates.