Hundreds of protesters gathered outside the Milwaukee Theatre on Tuesday just hours leading up to the Republican primary's fourth debate, advocating, among other issues, a raise in the federal minimum wage.
The issue also drew attention inside the theater, where Fox Business Network host Neil Cavuto questioned the GOP hopefuls on whether they would support a minimum wage hike from the current rate of $7.25 per hour to $15.
"Just outside and across the country, picketers are gathering," Cavuto said, preparing to pose the question of the night to front-runner Donald Trump. "They're demanding an immediate hike in the minimum wage to $15 an hour. Mr. Trump, as the leading presidential candidate on this stage... are you sympathetic to the protesters' cause?"
Trump shot down the idea immediately.
"I can't be, Neil," he said. "And the reason I can't be is that we are a country that is being beaten on every front economically, militarily. There is nothing that we do now to win. We don't win anymore. Our taxes are too high... taxes too high, wages too high, we're not going to be able to compete against the world."
"I hate to say it, but we have to leave it the way it is," Trump continued. "People have to go out, they have to work really hard and have to get into that upper stratum. But we can not do this if we are going to compete with the rest of the world. We just can't do it."
Other presidential candidates echoed the sentiment.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio thinks it could end up speeding automation, to the detriment of minimum-wage workers.
"If you raise the minimum wage, you're going to make people more expensive than a machine," he said. "And that means all this automation that's replacing jobs and people right now is only going to be accelerated."
Dr. Ben Carson also thought it could have a negative impact on employment.
"As far as the minimum wage is concerned, people need to be educated on the minimum wage," the retired neurosurgeon said Tuesday. "Every time we raise the minimum wage, the number of jobless people increases."
Carson even suggested lowering the current wage threshold.
"It's particularly a problem in the black community," he said. "Only 19.8 percent of black teenagers have a job, who are looking for one...And that's because of those high wages. If you lower those wages, that comes down."
He added: "I would not raise it, specifically because I'm interested in making sure that people are able to enter the job market and take advantage of opportunities."
The hardline answer Carson gave seems to contradict a position he held earlier this year.
In May, just days after Carson announced his candidacy, the newly minted politician said the federal rate should be increased. When asked in a CNBC interview about raising the minimum wage, Carson said, "I think, probably, it should be higher than now."
Of the Republican field, only Ohio Gov. Kasich seemed to defend a wage hike, saying on the debate stage that sometimes, "people need help."
"In the state of Ohio -- and I'm the only acting executive on this stage today -- we do have a moderate increase in the minimum wage," he said.
"I come from a town where if the wind blew the wrong way, people found themselves out of work," Kasich added. "An economic theory is fine, but you know what? People need help."
Later, the Ohio Republican made another plea for empathy for those struggling on the economic ladder.
"For those at the bottom, we've got to do what we can to train them so they can move up," he said. "But to just look the other way is not acceptable"
The debate over increasing the minimum wage has become a rallying call for several in the Democratic primary. Candidates Bernie Sanders and Martin O'Malley are both in favor of raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, while Hillary Clinton has backed a jump to $12 hourly.
And even without federal legislation, several cities and states are moving towards their own wage increases. On Tuesday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed an order for public employees at the minimum wage to be paid $15 per hour starting in 2018. In June, Los Angeles promised to increase the rate to $15 by 2020. Seattle also voted last year to raise its minimum to an hourly $15 by 2017.
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