The third Republican presidential debate on Wednesday evening ended with a handful of winners – Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz – and one clear loser, former Florida governor Jeb Bush.
Bush, who was the well-financed front-runner at the beginning of the year, had one good moment in the beginning of the debate, when he attacked Rubio for his record of absences in the Senate. But that moment quickly became a devastating one for Bush, as Rubio responded with a faux-friendly cutdown: “Someone has convinced you that attacking me is going to help you,” he told Bush. “It’s not.”
After that, Bush was a minor presence – a night so bad for him that his campaign manager confronted CNBC producers off the stage, angry about Bush’s lack of airtime.
Rubio, by contrast, used the debate to cast himself as someone who understood middle-class concerns about student debt and income. By taking down Bush, he blunted an entire line of questioning about his withdrawal from the daily work of the Senate.
[Full coverage: Republican presidential debate]
Cruz and Christie also had strong moments while criticizing the moderators: Cruz attacked their questions as too negative, and Christie criticized them for asking about whether government should regulate the lucrative ‘daily fantasy” sports business. Christie mocked the moderators for focusing on “fantasy football” with so many other problems in the country.
It was certainly not a good night for the moderators, who were booed on at least two occasions for questions the audience thought were unfair.
One of the strongest moments for Donald Trump, the billionaire front-runner, came at the very end of the debate, when he said he had teamed up with neurosurgeon Ben Carson to force CNBC to shorten the debate. There, Trump said, was proof of his basic campaign promise: nobody was better than him at getting a good deal. Moderator John Harwood denied Trump’s assertion.
Earlier, Trump denounced gun-free zones in public places as “target practice for the sickos,” underlining his pro-gun credentials during the third main GOP presidential debate.
“That’s target practice for the sickos, and the mentally ill. That’s targets. They look around for gun free zones,” Trump said, talking about recent shootings at schools and military installations. “I think gun-free zones are a catastrophe. They are feeding frenzy for sick people.”
Trump had been uncharacteristically quiet during the first hour and a half of the debate. But he used this moment to talk about his experience with guns, including his permits to carry weapons in New York City. “I like to be unpredictable,” about when he actually carries a gun, Trump said. “Unlike our country, by the way, which is totally predictable.”
The next question was to former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who was asked – as a minister – if Trump had the moral authority to be president. Some in the crowd booed. Huckabee rejected the question: “The last [thing] I need is to give him some more time,” Huckabee said.
“Such a nasty question, but thank you governor,” Trump said.
Christie interjected himself into a discussion about whether the government should regulate the huge, high-earning “daily fantasy” sites that let people win huge amounts of money through the success of sports players. Bush, who got the question, seemed to indicate it should be treated as gambling, and regulated.
Christie jumped in, apparently incredulous that the question was even being asked: Why would the government, with all of its problems, bother with something like this?
“Enough on fantasy football! Let people play! Who cares?” he said. Later, Christie continued in his confrontational mood, stopping after Harwood had talked over him.
“Do you want me to answer, or do you want to answer? Even in New Jersey, what you’re doing is called rude,” Christie said.
Earlier, Rubio called Democratic front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton a liar, and said that the mainstream media had worked to cover up Clinton’s falsehoods about the attacks that killed four Americans in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012.
“You know, the Democrats have the ultimate Super PAC, it’s called the mainstream media,” Rubio said. He mentioned an 11-hour hearing about Benghazi on Capitol Hill last week, in which Republicans grilled Clinton about her conduct as secretary of state at the time of the attacks. “It was the week she got exposed as a liar. But she has her Super PAC helping her out, the American mainstream media.”
That comment came on a night when the media – and CNBC itself – became a punching bag for the GOP candidates.
An exchange between a CNBC moderator and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson – which began with questions about Carson’s ties to a nutritional-supplement company – ended with the crowd booing the moderator himself.
The boos seemed to indicate that the crowd believed Carson when he said he had no real relationship with the company, Mannatech, which news reports have said has a history of legal actions and accusations of false claims. When moderator Carl Quintanilla pressed Carson to say if he had made an error in judgment, the crowd itself booed. “See, they know,” Carson said.
Rubio used a sharp comeback to defuse Bush’s attack on his voting record in the Senate, and turned a question about his personal financial struggles into a chance to empathize with voters’ own money worries.
“I didn’t inherit any money. My dad was a bartender, my mother was a maid…I know what it’s like to owe that money,” Rubio said, after a moderator asked about his personal debts, including student loans. “I’m not worried about my finances. I’m worried about the finances of everyday Americans.”
Rubio defended his record of missed votes in the Senate in the third GOP presidential debate, saying he was rebelling against a GOP establishment that wanted to keep him out of the presidential race.
“That’s exactly what the Republican establishment says too, wait in line. Wait for what?,” he said when asked by a moderator why he was in such a rush to leave his work in the Senate. Rubio, making an argument he’s made several times in recent weeks, said his ambitions for American could not wait on the slow-moving Senate. “The time to act is now. The time to turn the page is now.”
That brought an attack from Bush – a onetime ally of Rubio’s, now a bitter rival as they battle for the establishment’s support in this race. Bush, a Florida resident, cast himself as a wronged constituent of Rubio’s.
“I expected that he would do constituent service, which means he shows up to work,” Bush said. “Marco, when you signed up for this, this is a six year term, and you should be showing up to work…Or just resign, and let somebody else take the job.”
Rubio clearly had been expecting this attack, and responded with a sharp attack on Bush – followed by a pledge that he would not attack people, as Bush just had.
“Someone has convinced you that attacking me is going to help you….It’s not,” Rubio said. “I’m not running against Gov. Bush. I’m not running against anyone else on the stage. I’m running for president.”
Cruz attacked the moderators, for asking too-hard questions of the other candidates. “The men and women on this stage have more ideas, more experience, more common sense than any participant in the Democratic debate,” Cruz said.
In that attack, Cruz used up the time he’d been allotted to answer a question about the debt ceiling, and why Cruz opposed a bill to raise it.
When that was pointed out, Cruz offered to answer the question. When moderators didn’t let him, he seemed outraged. “You’re not interested in an answer? You’re not interested in an answer?”
Earlier, Carson, a new front-runner in the Republican race, faced strong criticism of his tithing-based tax plan, when Kasich called Carson’s plan “fantasy.”
“You can’t do it with empty promises. You know, these plans would put us trillions of dollars in debt,” Kasich said. “We cannot elect somebody that doesn’t know how to do the job.”
Even at the moment when Kasich was attacking his rival, Carson, Trump – unable to let a chance to insult pass by -- intervened to attack Kasich for his low poll numbers. “That’s why he’s on the end,” Trump said.
A few minutes earlier, the third Republican presidential debate had begun like an awkward job interview, with a moderator asking candidates to name their biggest weakness. The result, as in most job interviews, was a group of people who didn’t actually answer the question.
“Good question,” said Kasich, who then ignored the question to insult his colleagues. “We’re on the verge of picking somebody who could perhaps not do this job.”
“If I have a weakness, it’s that I try to play by the rules,” said Huckabee.
“I share an optimism” about the country’s future,” said Rubio.
“I’m a fighter,” said Cruz.
The closest thing to a weakness that anyone admitted came from an unlikely source: Trump. “I’m too trusting,” Trump said. “And if they let me down, when they let me down, I never forgive.”
Earlier on Wednesday, four low-performing Republican candidates faced off in another dinnertime “undercard” debate. The dominant figures in that debate were Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.), the jokester; Lousiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, the hard-right conservative; and a large and growing cast of CNBC moderators, who at times seemed loathe to let the actual candidates speak.
Graham – showing his trademark combination of humor and deadly seriousness – closed out the earlier debate by mocking Donald Trump, and then swinging to an emotional plea that American make him commander in chief.
Graham (S.C.) joked that he’d heard – or maybe read it on a hat – that somebody wanted to “Make America Great Again.” That was a jab at Trump, who had made the slogan -- and the hats that bear it -- famous this year. Then Graham turned to his own message.
“America is great. I intend to make America strong again,” he said, pledging to help the middle class, and to back American troops, even as he sent them into a new land war in Syria.
“They have had our back. God knows, they have had our back. And I intend to have their back…Make me commander in chief.”
[Transcript: CNBC undercard GOP debate]
Jindal, formerly known as a wonk-Republican, made an appeal to pugnacious hard-core conservatives and Christian right. In the course of the debate, Jindal derided Democrats as socialists, and Republicans in Washington as weak and too quick to surrender.
Jindal ended the first debate with an appeal for Americans to think of their country in Christian terms: with faith that a frightening situation could be saved.
“The idea of America is slipping away. As Christians, we believe that the tomb is empty. As Americans we believe that our best days are ahead of us,” Jindal said, meaning the tomb of Jesus Christ, which Christians believe was found empty because Christ had been resurrected after death. “We can save the idea of America,” Jindal said. “Before it’s too late.”
Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum sought to play the role of a business-focused realist: asked about the Export-Import Bank, a conservative bogeyman, Santorum defended the institution as a crucial aid to U.S. manufacturing. Without it, he said, other countries would use similar state-sponsored institutions to give their own industries a leg up over American firms. “In order to have a level playing field which is what conservatives talk about all the time, then we have to have export financing,” Santorum said.
At one point, Graham launched into a diatribe about the state of the Republican Party, complaining that other candidates were making unrealistic promises – and that the GOP nominee might lose to a weak Democrat in 2016.
“At the end of the day folks, I am trying to solve a problem and win an election. I am tired of losing!” Graham shouted, as moderators tried to quiet him. He complained that the Democratic front-runner, Hillary Rodham Clinton, had made misleading claims that she’d been flat broke” after leaving the White House, and about Sen. Bernie Sanders’s long ties to socialism. “The number two guy [in the Democratic race] went to the Soviet Union and I don’t think he came back. If we can’t beat these people, then who in the hell are we going to beat!”
Graham’s speech may have been the emotional high point of a rather sleepy undercard, in which four long shots debated soberly about their tax plans. Jindal had touted his plan to make poor people a 2 percent federal income tax, a change from the present system where 45 percent of Americans pay no federal income tax. Former New York governor George Pataki said his plan was better than Jindal’s tax plan because he had the political skills to get it passed.
At one point, Pataki talked over another candidate in order to condemn Washington politicians for…interrupting.
“In Washington, they talk over each other!” he said, while talking over Graham. “I’m not used to that. I listen when people talk.”
Jenna Johnson, in Sioux City, Iowa, and David Weigel, in Boulder, Colo., contributed to this report.