BOULDER, Colorado — Desperate to stand out as time begins to run short, the Republican presidential candidates lashed out at one another Wednesday in their third presidential debate, with Ohio Gov. John Kasich and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush taking aim at the new generation of anti-establishment Republicans who have eclipsed them in the polls.
The 10 candidates on the stage in the evening main event panned the budget deal that Republican leaders on Capitol Hill reached with President Obama, saying it was a bad trade-off that called for more spending and debt now, matched with speculative promises of future cuts.
They also sparred over how deeply taxes and spending should be cut in the next administration, with Donald Trump and Ben Carson defending their expansive cutting plans and Mr. Kasich saying their numbers don’t add up.
But they found unity in attacking CNBC, which hosted the debate and seemed intent on reading opposition research attacks or orchestrating a food fight among the candidates.
Sen. Ted Cruz said the moderators were doing a disservice to the candidates by prodding them to insult one another rather than addressing the issues of interest to Republican voters.
“The questions that have been asked so far in this debate illustrate why the American people don’t trust the media,” Mr. Cruz said instead of answering a question about the debt limit. “This is not a cage match.”
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Mr. Cruz took issue with moderators over questions that the Texan said mocked Mr. Trump by asking if he was a “comic book” character, insinuated that Mr. Carson doesn’t understand math, and demanded that Marco Rubio give up his Senate seat.
“Nobody watching at home believes that any of the moderators has any intention of voting in a Republican primary,” Mr. Cruz said.
The candidates repeatedly tried to bring the debate back to their own plans on tax cuts, entitlement programs and national security, but were sidetracked by the unwieldy size of the field and the chaotic format of the debate.
Mr. Trump plowed new ground when he said he would consider allowing employees at his business empire’s establishments to carry firearms, as he often does himself, saying gun-free zones have become targets for “sickos.”
“I think gun-free zones are a catastrophe, a feeding frenzy,” Mr. Trump said.
Mr. Carson reversed a position from earlier this year and said he now opposes government subsidies for ethanol, saying the government should stop picking winners and losers in business.
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Both men, who are at top of the polls, were targets for Mr. Kasich, who is struggling for relevance and is stunned that anti-establishment candidates he considers unelectable are doing so well.
“My great concern is that we are on the verge, perhaps, of picking someone who cannot do this job,” he said, questioning Mr. Trump’s tax and immigration plans and Mr. Carson’s proposals on Medicare and Medicaid.
Mr. Trump and Mr. Carson bristled at the claims.
“The rate is going to be much closer to 15 percent,” Mr. Carson said, defending the math on his tax plan. “You also have to get rid of all of the deductions and all of the loopholes. You also have to do strategic cutting.”
Mr. Trump said he would find a way to make Mexico pay for his border fence and would make the tax numbers add up, and then fired back at Mr. Kasich, saying he contributed to the Wall Street collapse as a member of the Lehman Brothers board — a claim Mr. Kasich denied.
Mr. Bush went after Mr. Rubio, a fellow Floridian who is competing for many of the same donors and who has risen as Mr. Bush has dropped, saying the senator is doing a disservice to voters in their home state by missing so many votes on Capitol Hill while running for president.
“Marco, when you signed up for this, this was a six-year term,” he said. “You should be showing up to work. I mean, literally, the Senate, what is it, like a French workweek? You get like three days where you have to show up? You can campaign or just resign and let someone else take the job.”
Mr. Rubio eviscerated Mr. Bush, pointing out that he didn’t criticize Sen. John McCain when the 2008 Republican presidential nominee missed votes in the Senate.
“The only reason why you’re doing it now is because we’re running for the same position and someone has convinced you that attacking me is going to help you,” Mr. Rubio said. “Here’s the bottom line: My campaign is going to be about the future of America, it’s not going to be about attacking anyone on this stage.”
The candidates did delve somewhat deeply into their plans for entitlement reform. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee defended the existing programs such as Social Security and said the government must find enough money to keep paying the benefits it has promised.
Most of the rest of the field, however, said the government cannot afford those promises, at least for future retirees, and changes have to be made.
Other candidates later joined in the attacks on the moderators.
Mr. Rubio called them an example of how “the Democrats have the ultimate super PAC — it is called the mainstream media.” He and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie expressed incredulity at a question about fantasy-football regulation and told moderator John Harwood about his interrupting that “even in New Jersey, what you’re doing is rude.”
Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, the Democratic presidential front-runner, took a page from Mr. Trump and tweeted responses during the debate — and took aim at Mr. Carson, a retired neurosurgeon, on his criticism of Obamacare and Medicare.
“For a surgeon, Ben Carson has a pretty poor diagnosis,” she texted to supporters. “We need to build on the progress we’ve made on health care.”
The Republican field is beginning to shift after a relatively stable summer and early autumn.
Mr. Trump, who had consistently led in national and early-state polls, has seen Mr. Carson overtake him in the latest polls in Iowa, and in one new poll of the national Republican electorate.
“Iowa, will you get your numbers up, please?” Mr. Trump pleaded with voters in Sioux City, Iowa, on Tuesday. “Will you get these numbers up? I promise you, I will do such a good job.”
Mr. Bush’s campaign has stumbled, forcing him to announce staffing cuts last week and to huddle with his family to try to plot another course. Mr. Rubio and Mr. Cruz have remained steady.
Carly Fiorina, who surged after the first two debates, reaching double digits and third place, has fallen back to the middle of the pack.
Those six represent the top tier of the field.
Also on the main stage Wednesday were four candidates struggling to gain traction: Mr. Kasich, Mr. Huckabee, Mr. Christie and Sen. Rand Paul, who vowed to lead a filibuster in the Senate to try to stop the budget deal, which adds $80 billion in spending over the next two years, back-loading the cuts and savings until later in the debate, and granting the White House a debt holiday through March 2017.
“It allows President Obama to borrow unlimited amounts of money. I will stand firm. I will spend every ounce of energy to stop it,” Mr. Paul said.
Earlier in the night, four still lower-tier Republicans squared off in another “kiddie’s table” debate, with Sen. Lindsey Graham earning the best reviews for his shots at the Democratic field.
“Good God, look who we’re running against. The No. 1 candidate on the other side thought she was flat broke after her and her husband were in the White House for eight years. The No. 2 guy went to the Soviet Union on his honeymoon, and I don’t think he ever came back,” the South Carolina Republican said.
He then called for voters to put their top focus on national security.
“To the Chinese, when it comes to dealing with me, you’ve got a clenched fist or an open hand. You pick. The party’s over, to all the dictators,” Mr. Graham said. “Make me commander in chief, and this crap stops.”
Former Sen. Rick Santorum broke with many other Republican by saying it was the right move to revive the Export-Import Bank, a New Deal-era program designed to provide credit to companies that can’t find it on the open market.
“There are 60 other Ex-Im banks all over the world. Every major competitor for the United States’ manufacturing dollar has one of those banks,” Mr. Santorum said. “And guess what? They use those banks a heck of a lot more than the United States of America does. So, in order to have a level playing field, which is what conservatives talk about all the time … then we have to have export financing.”
Meanwhile Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and former New York Gov. George Pataki sparred over their fiscal records. Mr. Jindal said he cut the size of government while balancing budgets every year, and Mr. Pataki said he did that in New York with a Democrat-led legislature.
“You know, Bobby, you’re talking about your tax cuts? I cut taxes more than everybody on this stage, more than everybody on the next stage, combined,” he said.
⦁ Seth McLaughlin reported from Washington.