Republican debate: winners and losers
On October 28, candidates took on the mainstream media in the third GOP presidential debate.
Prior to the debate, the storylines seemed set: in the last week, Ben Carson became the frontrunner, Jeb Bush made major cuts to his staff and campaign budget, Chris Christie got kicked off a train, and Donald Trump continued to display the kind of vacuous narcissism usually attributed to Kylie Jenner (he blamed Monsanto and poll conductor bias for Carson’s lead and proceeded to question the neurosurgeon’s faith). But instead of these events culminating in the insult-fest dominating previous debates, the evening evolved into a scathing critique of media bias and breakout performances from the middle tier.
Marco Rubio - There’s a reason the Washington Post, New York Times, and CNN all declared Rubio the winner of Wednesday's debate. Sure, the charismatic senator has displayed eloquent rhetoric and a clear grasp of policy at all three debates. But on Wednesday, Rubio demonstrated the ability to control the debate without stooping to fighting, denigration or complaints. When Rubio’s former mentor and fellow candidate Jeb Bush directed an attack at his Senate voting record (the subject of controversy in the past 72 hours), the senator responded by reminding the crowd that neither Bush nor the media cared about the voting records of John McCain, Barack Obama, or Hillary Clinton in past elections. “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,” he admonished. Later, Rubio gave the conservative press its best pull quote: “The Democrats have the ultimate super PACs: they're called the mainstream media,” he said. These memorable moments, coupled with earnest statements about the American dream and the senator’s Cuban background (and his pledge not to implement any policy that’s bad for his mother), contributed to a night that may very well be remembered as Marco Rubio’s breakout.
Ted Cruz - Long a favorite son of the Tea Party crowd, Cruz, ever the debate champion, took a cue from Rubio's criticism of mainstream media bias and ran with it. His impassioned attack on the moderator’s questions set the room ablaze: “The questions that have been asked so far in this debate illustrate why the American people don't trust the media,” he declared to roaring applause. The senator’s crowning moment, however, came as he followed the media critique with a rousing call to unity amongst the Republican candidates: “This is not a cage match…Let me be clear, the men and women on this stage have more ideas, more experience, more common sense than every participant in the Democratic debate.” Cruz has been positioning himself as the more-experienced foil to the non-politicians leading the pack, and as the Trump show starts to fade, expect Cruz’s confidence and conservative ideology to gain momentum (and votes).
Chris Christie - Living proof that burned bridges can be rebuilt (and closed ones re-opened), Christie approached Wednesday’s debate with the same tenacious swagger exhibited at the beginning of the month. Although often cast as the sort of big government boogeyman Ron Paul’s grandchildren check for under their beds each night, the brash governor scored one of the night’s largest (and certainly funniest) defenses of the free market; when a floundering Jeb Bush implied fantasy football ought to be regulated, Christie cut in, asking, “Are we really talking about getting government involved in fantasy football?” The audience laughed, but Christie underscored the incredulity of the suggestion as he reminded both Bush and CNBC of the real issues missing from the night’s discussions: “Wait a second: we have $19 trillion in debt, we have people out of work, we have ISIS and al-Qaeda attacking us. And we're talking about fantasy football? Can we stop?” The governor saw no significant gain in poll numbers after the September debate, but if any performance can pull him up, Wednesday’s certainly can.
Carly Fiorina - Fiorina was stellar, as we’ve come to expect -- and that could be a problem. Although the former CEO spoke articulately, threw around statistics as if they were addition problems and addressed feminism in the way only a conservative woman can, there was nothing new in her performance. Despite standout debate showings and subsequent interviews, Fiorina’s ratings saw a sharp drop shortly after September’s debate, and nothing she displayed Wednesday looked set to change that. However, the former CEO’s rhetorical skills and depth of knowledge remain breathtaking, and her reference to “not smiling more” at the last debate was fantastic.
Mike Huckabee - Governor Huckabee has been strong at every debate, but unlike Cruz and Rubio, he’s had no breakout moments. There’s a reason that the top headlines for Huckabee one day out of the debate concern whether or not his reference to Krispy Kreme donuts was a subtle jab at Chris Christie, his Trump tie and his inadvertent support for fetal tissue research (RawStory, always a bastion of principled journalism). His pro-religious liberty, anti-Clinton message still plays well to evangelical conservatives, but with Rubio looking to capture that base, Huckabee might lose his niche.
Donald Trump - Donald Trump was the least like Donald Trump he’s been all election season, and that’s really a compliment. Aside from a rather nasty exchange with John Kasich at the debate’s outset, Trump remained uncharacteristically quiet (he came in fourth in terms of speaking time). While the silence presented a calmer side to the loutish businessman, it also exposed his lack of knowledge about any real policy. Also, a memo to Team Trump: Declaring one thousand times that Mexico will pay for a border wall does not make it any more likely to occur.
Ben Carson - Dr. Carson recently emerged as the GOP frontrunner, but it was difficult to see why on Wednesday. Although Carson remains the possible most likable person on the planet, he also continues to come across as unprepared and out of his elements in these debates. Cruz and Rubio both attacked the media, praised the country and rose above candidate-bashing: all tendencies the electorate has lauded Carson for and none of which he exhibited with any real gusto at the debate. I hesitate, however, to list the doctor as a "loser," because two weak debate performances have done nothing but bolster his numbers, and I expect nothing different after the most recent one.
CNBC - “Media bias” is a claim thrown about unfairly by both sides of the aisle, but CNBC was worthy of it Wednesday (when CNN calls the network one of the night’s losers, you know it’s bad). Where Anderson Cooper and Jake Tapper asked hard-hitting yet dignified questions at their respective debates, Wednesday’s moderators (at times seeming to rival the GOP field in trying to outnumber the cast of "Love Actually") rudely interrupted candidates as they explained policies, asked Trump if he was a comic book candidate, and asked questions designed to encourage insults. The network was clearly hoping for the type of candidate-on-candidate verbal smackdowns that translate to high ratings, but the candidates rallied against the network instead. CNBC ought to be ashamed of the trainwreck it created.
Jeb Bush - Last night had to be Jeb!’s night, but it wasn’t. As mentioned, the former governor has been making major cuts, meaning that without a bump in poll numbers and donors, Bush will soon go the way of Scott Walker. Bush’s low energy has hurt him at previous debates and events, and it did him no favors Wednesday. While Rubio and Cruz seized their moments and other candidates chimed in, Bush faded into the background. When he emerged, it was with the carefully-planned attack against Rubio that backfired and made Bush look like the career politician Trump, Fiorina and Carson have been assembling against. Christie’s devastating indictment of Bush’s fantasy football regulation drove the final nail into the coffin of what was once a promising bid for the White House. A good moral of this story, however, is to avoid turning on people you mentor.
John Kasich - Kasich continues to be polarizing, as every media outlet has declared him either a winner or a loser (but nothing in-between). The Ohio governor was recently dubbed a jerk by Weekly Standard editor Fred Barnes, and the ‘jerk’ persona stood out clearly Wednesday. Though Kasich clearly wanted to position himself as the Experienced Governor Tired of the All the Fighting, he appeared more like the angry old man muttering about kids these days. His continued defense of Ohio’s Medicaid expansion does nothing to help his standing among Tea Party conservatives, and Wednesday’s performance could send him packing.
Rand Paul - When archeologists find a perfectly-good twinkie buried underground 150 years from now, they’ll almost certainly also find Rand Paul fans. The senator’s numbers are dwindling, but the libertarian market, for better or for worse, will continue to support him. On Wednesday, Paul came across with even littler energy than Bush and just as ready to hang up his hat. Certainly, his condemnation of the Federal Reserve was a strong moment, but Paul spoke so little for the rest of the debate that he may as well have spent half the time hiking the Rocky Mountains.
Photo Credit: Fox 5 San Diego