The main storyline of the third Republican presidential debate was that the candidates beat the moderators. The CNBC crew asking the questions repeatedly went overboard trying to nail the various GOP contenders and spent most of the evening serving as punching bags for their intended victims. Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Chris Christie all scored big with the audience by slamming the inquisitors leaving the cable channel with egg on its collective face. The network came off the loser for bringing almost all of the candidates together to do the thing Republicans love to do best: jump on the mainstream media for its liberal bias. As such, most of the field generally performed well even if some like Mike Huckabee and Rand Paul struggled to be heard, and the best that could be said of the two frontrunners was that they didn’t do themselves any harm. But there was one real loser besides the moderators on the stage in Boulder: Jeb Bush.
Bush has had a terrible month. But it felt as if he hit bottom after he cut his campaign staff salaries and was recorded saying that he had better things to do than to go on enduring the tortures of the presidential race. He was also pilloried by Trump for conferencing with his parents, brother and big donors as he attempted to regroup. Some of the criticisms he absorbed about these things were a bit unfair but what happened in the debate was no one’s fault but his own.
After complaining that he was being “forced to demonize others” — a statement as foolish as the one about having “a lot of cool things to do” if he wasn’t running for president — Bush was the sole GOP candidate who came to Colorado determined to destroy one of his rivals. The Bush clan conference apparently decided that Marco Rubio was the chief threat, so the man who would be the third President Bush tore into Rubio for missing votes in the Senate while running for president.
But unfortunately for Jeb, the Bush campaign telegraphed their punch and Rubio was ready for him. Taking equal aim at Jeb and the Sun-Sentinel newspaper that editorialized that he should resign, the Florida senator had statistics at his fingertips about other candidates the paper had endorsed that missed more Senate votes than he did illustrating the liberal bias of the media. When Bush jumped into the fray to pile on, Rubio reminded him that the former Florida governor said he would come back in the same manner as John McCain did in 2008 while that senator was missing even more votes than him. In doing so, Rubio deftly lumped Bush together with the mainstream media GOP voters despise. At that point, Bush might as well have gone home.
That said Ted Cruz had the best moment of anyone at the GOP debate when he went on a rant about the unfair, gotcha questions CNBC was throwing at all the candidates. Chris Christie scored with a similar good moment asking why CNBC was worrying about getting the government involved fantasy football when ISIS was murdering people and Washington couldn’t handle what was already on its plate. Rubio also hit another one out of the park when he caught John Harwood in an error about his tax plan. He also scored when he noted that the mainstream media that apologizes and spins for Hillary Clinton is her most effective and powerful SuperPac.
Even Donald Trump managed to restrain his instincts to trash his opponents, a wise decision that nonetheless largely marginalized him. John Kasich, needing to do something to get some attention for a campaign mired in the low single digits in the polls, complained about the tone of the race but wisely avoiding naming names.
It was Bush who seemed to be the sole candidate on the stage that didn’t get the memo about observing Ronald Reagan’s 11th commandment about not attacking other Republicans and he suffered by the comparison. That would make for a bad night for any candidate but for the GOP contender who is seen as the quintessential insider it was a disaster.
As with past debates, it’s hard to say whether the candidates’ poll numbers will be drastically affected by the candidate’s performances. Trump and Carson will probably maintain their current standing as the favorites of a public that wants outsiders. But if political gravity reasserts itself in the next couple of months — as some polls might be starting to show with Trump — then its possible that the strong showings by Rubio and Cruz, who currently are holding the third and fifth positions in the Real Clear Politics average of polls, are setting them up for surges that may eventually put them into contention.
Others like Christie and Fiorina may not have a path to the nomination, but they are keeping their candidacies alive with very strong performances in the debates.
But the one thing we know after Boulder is that both CNBC and Jeb Bush had a very bad night. The network will survive the shame of their dreadful showing. With his famous name and vast resources, Bush may also linger to fight another day. But right now he’s a much better bet to win a fantasy football league than to come back and win the nomination.