Ben Carson shrank, Donald Trump was a non-entity, and Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio fought for who would have the next biggest news of the night – the biggest news being the terrible job of the moderators and expert panelists at the CNBC Republican Debate in Colorado.
“The loser Tuesday night – by far – was CNBC’s panel,” said Dane Strother a Washington-based Democratic strategist. “When carnival barker (Jim) Cramer showed up as a fourth ring of the circus, credibility was completely lost.”
The hosts lost control of the debate early and often, he said. The panelists’ questions became fodder for the candidates’ scorn.
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz scored points and garnered needed attention when he criticized the CNBC team for attempting to instigate fights among the candidates, calling it media bias against Republicans (a popular line with GOP voters that worked so well for Newt Gingrich in 2012 during the South Carolina primary that he won the state, breaking a long standing rule that whoever wins South Carolina wins the nomination).
“How about talking about the substantive issues?” Cruz asked. “Nobody believes the moderator will vote in the Republican primary. It shouldn’t be about tearing into each other.”
Tear into each other, they did – of course – but the moderators were most-gored.
“Any time a candidate can attack the (main stream media), the candidate wins, and there were a lot of opportunities for that,” said Chip Felkel a Republican strategist in South Carolina. “The big loser of tonight’s debate was CNBC and their credibility to run another debate. Poorly managed, with some bizarre questions and ridiculous assertions,” he said.
For most of the two-hour event, Trump and Carson faded into the wallpaper.
“Carson and Trump did not have stellar performances, and maybe they did not have to,” said Felkel. “In fact, less time might have benefited them both.”
Although Carson and Trump lead in national polls, each performs poorly when pressed on policy details.
It was clearly Marco Rubio’s night to shine, with his one-time friend and mentor Jeb Bush attempting – and failing – to take him down.
Bush went for the jugular when he criticized Rubio’s voting record in the Senate; he missed his target.
“Marco, when you signed up for (the Senate), this was a 6-year term, and you should be showing up for work… You can campaign, or just resign and let someone else take the job,” said Bush, echoing a recent editorial from the Sounth Florida Sun Sentinel.
Rubio would have none of it, saying, “The only reason you’re doing it is that we’re running for the same position and someone has convinced you that attacking me will help you.”
The freshman senator from Floria was poised, calm, confident and witty throughout the debate. More importantly, he was unflappable – a crucial asset when one is the ascendant during this fluid portion of the nominating process.
“Marco Rubio had a big night,” said Bruce Haynes, Washington-based media consultant at Purple Strategies. “He took Jeb Bush’s best shot, and his counter punch was a debilitating blow that made Jeb Bush look small.”
Felkel said Rubio showed an impressive ability to weave his personal history into just about every answer when he might have been on the defensive. “He knew he was going to be attacked, and he came prepared,” Felkel said.
“Rubio ensured he would remain ahead of Bush by slapping him down when challenged over the Sentinel editorial calling for his resignation,” said Strother. “Bush was a fool for stepping into the trap because Rubio practiced that answer more than any other,” he said.
Ohio Governor John Kasich had his best night by far, said Strothers. “He came out swinging, then lost steam, then came back a bit,” he said, adding that Kasich did a great job of using the Ohio success as his platform.
“Bush speaks of what he did long ago, and Kasich has a current and by extension more relevant story to push,” said Strothers.
Three months before any primary vote is cast, the Republican field remains fluid – with outsiders Trump and Carson gaining the early lead in the process, but showing weakness in sustaining it.
Both Carly Fiorina and Chris Christie had solid moments, with Fiorina stealing the show literally by having the most speaking time of all of the candidates.
“Christie was succinct and plays the prosecutor,” said Strothers. “He had a score in shooting down oversight of fantasy football.”
The large GOP field contrasts with the Democrats, where only three candidates remain: frontrunner Hillary Clinton, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley.