Well, the third Republican debate has come and gone. This one was thankfully shorter than the last, but in every other respect it was almost definitely worse. Contrary to expectations, Carson and Trump were largely irrelevant, even though they together are pulling in about 60% of the GOP vote right now. The moderators failed to control the debate and asked inane questions that actually got them booed by the audience at one point. Without further ado, let’s break down the winners and losers.
1. [mc_name name=’Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL)’ chamber=’senate’ mcid=’R000595′ ] – Rubio had the first contentious exchange of the night, with Jeb Bush, and won it decisively. Bush confronted Rubio with the missed votes issue (which never, ever works as a political attack and never has), and Rubio slammed it into his face to the point that Jeb actually looked happy to be ignored for the next 30 minutes. Rubio successfully also deflected a number of hackish questions without confronting the moderators as acerbically as Cruz. Rubio both failed to be tripped up by the moderators and didn’t hurt himself in any way in the general. Rubio had roughly 70% of the memorable moments in the debate and continued to show that he is simply better at this than the other candidates on stage.
2. [mc_name name=’Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX)’ chamber=’senate’ mcid=’C001098′ ] – Cruz showed more fire in this debate than he did in the previous two debates combined. Toward the end of the debate he slipped back into preacher mode, but for the first hour he was sharp, funny, and connected emotionally. He made jokes about tequila and Colorado brownies, got off a great line about being America’s designated driver, and had probably the most compelling moment of the night (for Republican voters) by absolutely detonating the moderators, who had provoked the anger of virtually every Republican watching at that point. Cruz’s problem prior to tonight was that he was too deferential to the debate rules; tonight he showed a willingness to flaunt them strategically and it played into his hands well.
3. Ben Carson – Unbelievably, Ben Carson was almost completely ignored by the other candidates, including Donald Trump, even though he’s become the frontrunner. Any time you are the frontrunner and you emerge unhurt, you’re the winner in a given sense. But he also held his own surprisingly well with a tax policy question and probably won some points with the voters by flatly admitting “I was wrong” with respect to his policy on oil subsidies. “I was wrong” is not something you often hear politicians say in this format and he’ll probably gain voters from saying it, regardless of what it was about.
1. The RNC/CNBC – This was, quite frankly, the worst debate I have ever watched, and I have watched dozens. The moderators had no control over the candidates, the questions were inane and pointless, and the team function just didn’t work. As just one example, Ben Carson has a ton of holes in his policy statements, and the toughest question he got asked was a really stupid question about serving on the board of Costco, which does not hate gays or something. The follow up was even worse. At the end of this exchange I was actively angry at CNBC and I’m not really a Carson fan. After mostly solid debates from FoxNews and CNN, Preibus and the RNC are going to be answering some pointed questions about allowing this particular debate panel to host a debate. As for CNBC, their ratings are and always have been in the toilet; this debate is likely to be their most watched event in history, and their introduction to America was very bad. The pre-debate chatter was worthless and wrong, the moderators and TV personalities were bad, and no one who watches cable news walked away from tonight’s debate thinking they were going to switch from their current network to CNBC for news.
2. Jeb Bush – Where to even start? After trying to pick several fights with Donald Trump and losing all of them decisively, Jeb apparently thought to himself that Rubio might be easier pickings. What he found out was that, if anything, Rubio is worse. After getting flat out embarrassed by Rubio, he wasn’t heard from again for half an hour, where he capped off an actually solid answer with a trademark Jeb moment in which he tried to be funny and instead made a cringe-inducing joke about giving Democrats a “warm kiss.” It was as awkward as it sounded.
3. John Kasich – Kasich came out swinging tonight – at Republican voters. Kasich is an immensely unlikable person just as a matter of course, but tonight he basically was playing the [mc_name name=’Rep. John Boehner (R-OH)’ chamber=’house’ mcid=’B000589′ ] of the field, yelling at the damn kids to get off his lawn with their unreasonable demands. He hunched over his podium all night, maybe to hide the flask he looked like he might have been nipping out of. Look, this is the inevitable fruit of hiring John Weaver for your campaign: losing ignominiously and blaming the voters for the fact that no one likes you.
1. Carly Fiorina – Neither hurt herself nor helped herself, which means that she probably counts a somewhat of a loser. She needed another strong performance to reverse her slide in the polls since her clear win in the last debate catapulted her to the first tier. Fiorina probably had the best answer to the first (bad) round robin question, but otherwise mostly faded into the background. Fiorina needs to find a way to re-establish herself as a media darling, and she did not accomplish that tonight.
2. Donald Trump – Trump was mostly ignored by both the moderators and other candidates tonight. You get the sense that everyone involved in the entire process is bored with Trump and his schtick. You know what he’s going to say before asking the question these days, so no one bothers asking. This can’t really bode well for the future of his campaign.
3. Chris Christie – Christie is really good at these. I mean, really good. On the merits, his performance was probably third best of any of the candidates. But what he failed to do was create any kind of memorable moment that will change the fact that it just seems like the electorate has passed him by during this election.
4. [mc_name name=’Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY)’ chamber=’senate’ mcid=’P000603′ ], Mike Huckabee – Barely even had enough time to make an impression, at least until the last 15 minutes of the debate, when everyone had already tuned out. Probably, the next two candidates to drop out, if Christie doesn’t. Neither was able to generate any traction at all.