- Marco Rubio fended off an attack from Jeb Bush and then hit the Republican establishment, Democrats and the media
- Ted Cruz, Rubio, Trump and Chris Christie all went after CNBC's moderators
Washington (CNN)The third Republican presidential debate is in the books after the top 10 leading GOP candidates debated for more than two hours.
With fewer than 100 days until the first ballots are cast, the CNBC-hosted event was a critical test for many of the campaigns reaching the make-or-break point of their campaigns. A few candidates rose to the moment with strong performances that could bolster their standings in the polls and their pad their campaigns' coffers. But not everyone is leaving Colorado with a smile on their face.
Here's our take on the night's winners and losers:
The gloves are off.
The young senator from Florida handily eclipsed his one-time mentor Jeb Bush, proving that he is more than ready for the big leagues.
His strong night started off after Bush dug into him over his poor voting attendance record in the Senate. Rubio not only fended off the offensive, but returned in kind with a searing attack.
"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," Rubio said. "I'm not running against Governor Bush, I'm not running against anyone on this stage. I'm running for president."
From there, Rubio was off to the races, hitting the Republican establishment, Democrats and the media.
"The Democrats have the ultimate super PACs: they're called the mainstream media," Rubio said after Trump railed against the influence of those outside groups on the political process, effectively stealing Trump's thunder on the matter. (Rubio is benefiting from an outside group boosting his candidacy, which was not mentioned.)
And he pressed on with strong responses that tilted toward policy and his own success story as a son of immigrants as he fielded questions about his personal finances, the economy and immigration. The performance is one that's likely to pay off at just the right moment as Rubio has been rising in the polls.
The firebrand conservative did Wednesday what he does best: He saw his moment, carefully prepared a response as he patiently waited his turn, and then brought the crowd to raucous applause with the reddest of red meat: the liberal media.
Cruz set the theme for the debate -- and post-debate spin -- with his fiery tirade against the CNBC moderators and the media more broadly.
"The questions that have been asked so far in this debate illustrate why the American people don't trust the media," the Texas senator said as the audience roared with approval.
"This is not a cage match," Cruz said. "And you look at the questions: 'Donald Trump are you a comic book villain? Ben Carson can you do math? John Kasich will you insult two people over here? Marco Rubio why don't you resign? Jeb Bush why have your numbers fallen?' How about talking about the substantive issues people care about?"
But as he told a moderator who looked to reclaim the time, he wasn't finished.
"The contrast with the Democratic debate where every fawning questions from the media was which of you was more handsome and wise," he said. "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 had a double-win. He both slammed the common enemy of the right -- the mainstream media -- and maintained his persona as a candidate who has avoided attacking his fellow competitors, almost appearing to defend them.
Couple Cruz's strong performance on Wednesday night with his campaign's quietly effective ground operation in the early states and beyond, and the Texas senator may have just bumped his stock in the race.
As he fielded the first question of the night --- name your greatest weakness -- Kasich didn't even bother to feign a response.
Instead, he went on offense, delivering a fiery -- yet veiled -- excoriation of the non-politician candidates (read: Donald Trump & Ben Carson) who have been leading the GOP presidential pack.
"My great concern is that we are on the verge of perhaps picking someone who cannot do this job. I've watched to see people say that we should dismantle Medicare and Medicaid and leave our senior citizens out, out in the cold. I've heard them talk about deporting 10 or 11 (million) people here from this country out of this country, splitting families. I've heard about tax schemes that don't add up that put our kids in a deeper hole than they are today," Kasich said.
Along with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Bush and Rubio, Kasich is in the group of moderate Republicans who have been competing for establishment support -- and financial backing -- trying to make the case that they are best prepared to defeat the party's conservative alternative and that they have the best chance at defeating Hillary Clinton, the likely Democratic presidential nominee, in the general election.
Throughout the night, Kasich delivered a mixture of slamming what he deemed to be the unrealistic proposals of some of his competitors -- "This is the fantasy that I talked about...these plans would put us trillions of dollars in debt" -- while also continuously pivoting to his record as a governor and as a member of Congress who worked to balance the federal budget.
Trump put on a different kind of show on Wednesday -- in fact, he didn't put on much of a show at all.
The brash billionaire showed a softer, more reserved and even more presidential side at the CNBC debate, refraining from the personal attacks on other candidates that have characterized his past debate performances and ditching his penchant for theatrics.
The result was a win for Trump, who may have assuaged concerns of some voters skeptical that Trump has the temperament to be president.
That's despite the fact that Trump took heavy incoming fire from the outset from CNBC moderator John Harwood, who asked whether Trump's candidacy was "a comic book version of a presidential campaign."
Trump simply said the question was "not a very nicely asked" one and --- instead of flipping into his default attack mode --- Trump played up the benefits of his proposals, which he continued to insist are achievable.
And when Trump did go on the attack -- twice against Kasich -- it was with substance, not personal barbs. He knocked Kasich for his time as an executive at Lehman Brothers and raised doubts over Kasich's role in Ohio's economic successes; given the role fracking has played in the state's economy.
The candidate who has been prone to veering off on tangents stuck to his message throughout the evening. Trump touted his record as an effective negotiator and businessman while continuing to highlight the fact that he is not supported by outside groups or special interests.
The New Jersey governor showed throughout the night that he can handle himself well in a debate, but his breakout moment didn't come until late in the night, when he effectively schooled Jeb Bush on how to effectively field a question about fantasy football gambling.
After Bush gave a rambling response that suggested fantasy football should in some form be regulated, Christie jumped in with a swaggering incredulity:
"Are we really talking about getting government involved in fantasy football?" Christie said as the crowd laughed. "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?"
Beyond that moment, Christie consistently found the right moments to interject himself in the debate and made a point of staring right into the camera, as if to take his message directly to voters -- an effective touch.
For a campaign that began as a sure bet for the Republican nomination, Bush's White House bid could not have appeared in more dire straits than it did Wednesday.
But hey, at least Bush is 7-0 in his fantasy football league. Silver linings.
Even without Trump's consistent attacks that Bush is too "low-energy" to be president, Bush appeared to fade away into the background as other candidates jostled with the moderators as they eyed every opportunity to inject themselves into the debate.
When he did go on offense with a targeted barb against Rubio's voting attendance record, he failed to jump back in after Rubio deflected the attack -- giving Rubio the win on what could have been a strong moment for the former governor who desperately needed a breakout moment.
Even some of his fiercest backers, like CNN political commentator Ana Navarro, couldn't hide their disappointment.
"I'm pretty damn glum tonight," Navarro said after the debate. "(Bush has) gotta take the next 10 days...to really figure out how to dominate in the debates."
Bush addressed the criticism later Thursday night in an interview with CNN's Dana Bash, saying: "I'm running for president. If they're looking for entertainer in chief, I'm probably not the guy."
The network and its hosts on Wednesday took more incoming than anyone on stage as candidates from Cruz to Carson slammed the moderators for questions they deemed unfair. Even the audience got in on the act.
The moderators repeatedly looked to corner the candidates on unseemly skeletons from their past, but the candidates would have none of it -- rallying together to slam the moderators' questions and the mainstream media overall.
As moderator Carl Quintanilla continued to press Carson on his association with a controversial nutritional supplement company, asking if it speaks "to your vetting process or judgment in any way," the audience erupted in boos.
"See? They know," a vindicated Carson said.
RNC Chairman Reince Priebus took to the spin room as soon as the debate concluded to pan CNBC and the moderators' performance, saying the network "should be ashamed" of its handling of the third GOP debate.
"I was very disappointed in the moderators. I'm disappointed in CNBC," he said. "I thought they would bring forward a pretty fair forum here tonight. But I think it was one gotcha question, one personal low blow after another."
Carson hasn't been one to make a big splash at the Republican debates.
He didn't during the CNBC debate either -- but he didn't necessarily need to.
The retired neurosurgeon has been surging in the polls amid a slew of controversial comments by remaining his low-key, authentic self.
And as he has become the front-runner in Iowa and the GOP pack leader in one national poll released Tuesday, Carson rested comfortably atop his new perch, remaining unflinching as the moderators put his plans to a tough test of scrutiny.
Carson didn't do much to dispel criticism that he has only a surface-level understanding of the issues and that his plans are overly broad, but he remained himself -- and that's likely to be just fine for the more than 22% to 26% of Republican voters who have said they support him in recent polls.