GOP debate: Marco Rubio steals the show, while Jeb Bush fades

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CNN commentators weigh in on winners and losers in CNBC debate

Candidates drew big applause for bashing media. Cruz and Rubio had strong showings

CNN  — 

CNN Opinion asked a range of contributors for their take on the CNBC debate of Republican presidential candidates. Who were the winners and losers? The opinions expressed in these commentaries are solely those of the authors.

S.E. Cupp: Marco Rubio wins this round

In this GOP debate, Marco Rubio proved he can take whatever attacks come his way, whether legitimate or not, and turn them into a win. Jeb Bush proved he has horrible political timing, attacking Rubio on his voting record seconds after he’d earned a huge applause line defending it.

Carly Fiorina and Ted Cruz also had good nights. Fiorina offering an unflappable defense yet again on her record at HP, and Cruz blasting the debate moderators for their “cage match” questions.

Donald Trump seemed invisible again. It’s becoming more clear that his rallies are where his energy is at, not debates. And Ben Carson failed to step up to his frontrunner status. When Chris Christie and Carly Fiorina answer a question about pharmaceutical regulations better than the doctor can, I think it’s clear he can’t hang on.

S.E. Cupp is the author of “Losing Our Religion: The Liberal Media’s Attack on Christianity,” co-author of “Why You’re Wrong About the Right” and a columnist at the New York Daily News.

Errol Louis: Trump and Carson sit on their leads

Errol Louis

The third Republican presidential debate will do little to disturb a fairly stable pattern reflected in polls that place the two frontrunners, Ben Carson and Donald Trump, far ahead of the other dozen candidates. Neither Carson nor Trump lost any ground, choosing to quietly sit on their leads.

Their standing, and their laid-back performance reflect the reality that the Republican contest, especially in the early states, has candidates clustered in different lanes. Trump and Carson are in the “non-politician lane,” channeling the intense anger of many conservative voters toward politicians in general and Washington in particular. There’s little history of such complete outsiders making it to the White House, but for now Trump and Carson, while jockeying for the top spot in Iowa, are secure in their lane with less than 100 days to go before the Iowa caucuses.

Opinion: The power of Carson’s humility

The real debate action was in the “establishment career politician” lane, where Marco Rubio made the greatest positive impression, chastising the media for alleged anti-Republican bias and calmly but forcefully pushing back when ex-Gov. Jeb Bush attacked him for missing Senate votes.

“The Democrats have the greatest super PAC – it’s called the mainstream media,” Rubio said to thunderous applause. And when debate moderators asked Rubio about his poor voting record, Rubio answered by reeling off statistics suggesting that presidential candidates of both parties – including John Kerry, John McCain and Barack Obama – missed most of their Senate votes while campaigning for the White House.

That wasn’t good enough for Bush. “This was a six-year term, and you should be showing up to work,” he said pointedly.

And Rubio had an answer ready: “I don’t remember you ever complaining about John McCain’s voting record. Someone has convinced you that attacking me is going to help you.”

And that was pretty much the last we heard from Bush for the night, making the debate a lost opportunity for him to recapture his long-lost position at the front of the pack among the establishment candidates seeking to mount a serious challenge to the popularity of Carson and Trump.

Errol Louis is the host of “Inside City Hall,” a nightly political show on NY1, a New York all-news channel.

Crystal Wright: Polls will keep going crazy

Crystal Wright

As the old saying goes: Third time’s a charm – especially for the Republican presidential debates. From the onset, the candidates took the gloves off and came out swinging – for blood and poll numbers. And Sen. Ted Cruz called out CNBC moderators for their unabashedly biased efforts to tear down the GOP candidates.

CNBC’s John Harwood asked if Trump was just “a comic book” candidate as his critics charged, and asked Trump to defend his immigration plan. Attacking his comic book question, Trump forcefully defended his plan to deport illegal immigration, build a wall and yes, make Mexico pay for it. After Trump lit the match, things heated up between the candidates and their questioners.

Cruz called out CNBC on what appeared to be the network’s attempt to discredit the GOP candidates with ridiculous questions designed to get them quarreling, not talking about the issues. They were asked what their biggest weaknesses were, and whether they were good at math. Sen. Marco Rubio blasted the moderators for helping out the Democrat presidential candidates. “Hillary has a Super PAC helping her out: the mainstream media.” And he’s right.

Referencing Trump, Gov. John Kasich said: “We cannot elect somebody that doesn’t know how to do the job. You have got to pick somebody who has experience, somebody that has the know-how, the discipline,” also noting Trump’s pledge to deport illegal immigrants. Trump reminded the audience about Kasich’s time with failed bank Lehman Brothers.

Carl Quintanilla, another CNBC moderator, asked Sen. Marco Rubio why he’s missed so many votes in the Senate and doesn’t like his job anymore. Instead of answering the question, Rubio responded that America is in trouble and he’s not going to wait in line for his turn. Quintanilla pressed him further and asked him if he thinks he should resign as the Florida Sun-Sentinel called for in an editorial.

Responding that President Barack Obama and John Kerry did the same thing, Rubio refused to take responsibility for his dereliction of duty. Jeb Bush jumped in, excoriating Rubio for not showing up for the mere three days of work per week required at the Senate. Rubio changed the topic and blamed Jeb for attacking him just to rise in the polls.

While the GOP boys bickered, Carly Fiorina, the only gal in the group, delivered a calm, measured, presidential-like performance. She defended her tenure at HP, suggesting that some board members were dysfunctional. Again, Fiorina reminded voters the problem with career politicians is they never get anything done. Citing our complicated tax code, Fiorina argued it needs to be reformed to three pages so that 60% of Americans don’t need to hire accountants to file their taxes.

Government creates problems like student loan debt, and then tries to fix them, Fiorina hammered. Adding big government favors the big and powerful not the small and powerless, Fiorina convincingly argued she’d be a champion of small businesses, not huge mergers like the proposed Walgreens and Rite Aid.

At the start of the debate, Fiorina said her biggest weakness was that she doesn’t smile enough. Not anymore. At the debate’s conclusion, she added (smiling):

“I may not be your dream candidate just yet, but I can assure you I am Hillary Clinton’s worst nightmare. And in your heart of hearts, you cannot wait to see a debate between Hillary Clinton and Carly Fiorina. I will tell you this: I will beat Hillary Clinton.” I believe Carly could very well be right.

Bush said his biggest weakness was that he couldn’t fake anger. Sadly, he’s not faking leadership well either. And while Ben Carson has rocketed to the top of GOP polls, his low energy had him fading into the blue carpet of the debate stage. I predict his poll numbers will follow.

With strong performances from Rubio, Cruz, Trump and Fiorina, tonight’s debate made it clear the turbulent GOP presidential field is far from settled. Polls will continue to go crazy.

Crystal Wright runs the blog She also is a principal at the Baker Wright Group, a communications and public relations firm. You can follow her on Twitter @GOPBlackChick. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

Dean Obeidallah: A game of ‘let’s attack the media’

Wednesday’s GOP debate was more like a WWE Super Slam! No, not between the candidates. Rather, it was a tag-team wrestling match with the candidates teaming up against the CNBC moderators and the mainstream media. Again and again the crowd of conservatives cheered as Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Chris Christie and others powerbombed the press.

To be honest, that’s a genius move by the candidates. Republican voters view the media (other than Fox News) with contempt. And why answer “gotcha questions” – that is, any question that actually challenges the candidate – when you can instead avoid it by attacking the moderator? Will that kind of evasion of tough questions play with voters outside the GOP primaries? We’ll find out.

And while I hate to bury the lead, to me the biggest takeaways from Wednesday night were these: Rubio not only showed a command of policy issues, he served up some red meat in his well-placed attacks on the media and Hillary Clinton.

2016 Republicans vs. the media

Jeb Bush is probably done. He was again unimpressive and awkward in his attack on Rubio and conveyed a sense that he lacked any passion to be at a debate. Trump, already sliding in recent polls, did nothing to slow his descent. He needed to show us something different but it was the same old Donald. Ben Carson was hit hard on his own tax plan by the moderators, making it clear while he may be likable, he lacks a grasp of policy issues.

In contrast Christie was animated, passionate, knowledgable and even funny.

But the big winner? Marco Rubio.

And after Wednesday’s debate, I would predict that he has the inside track on the GOP presidential nomination. And that should worry Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

Dean Obeidallah, a former attorney, is the host of SiriusXM’s weekly program “The Dean Obeidallah Show.” He is a columnist for The Daily Beast and editor of the politics blog The Dean’s Report. He’s also the co-director of the documentary “The Muslims Are Coming!” Follow him on Twitter: @TheDeansreport.

David Gergen: Reshuffling the GOP deck

If enough people watched last night’s debate – and we will have to see how many the World Series drained off – it may well have reshuffled the deck in the Republican presidential race.

Sen. Marco Rubio was the smoothest debater on stage, winning over the audience with pokes at media bias and then upstaging Jeb Bush. Coming off two other strong performances, Rubio seems poised to break out of the lower tier, reaching double digit support and challenging the two current frontrunners, Ben Carson and Donald Trump.

Meanwhile, the debate may have sent two others spiraling down. Carson needed a strong night because he has just forged to the front and all eyes were on him. But he didn’t deliver. He may still win Iowa but there will now be fresh doubts about his long-term sustainability.

The other candidate who needed an impressive performance and didn’t get there was Jeb Bush. He is arguably the most qualified candidate on the GOP side and has the makings of a good president, but televised debate brawls are just not his medium. His campaign was also bitterly angry at CNBC for allocating him so little air time – he barely had six minutes.

Debate coach: CNBC’s atrocious debate

Several others had good nights – Ted Cruz and Chris Christie were both more forceful, John Kasich had the best grasp of economic policy and Carly Fiorina once again argued her case well. Yet, for different reasons, each may need one more boost before breaking out of the lower tier.

The garland for the night thus goes to Marco Rubio.

David Gergen is a senior political analyst for CNN and has been a White House adviser to four presidents. A graduate of Harvard Law School, he is a professor of public service and co-director of the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School. Follow him on Twitter: @david_gergen.

Maria Cardona: Jeb Bush is done

The GOP debate’s focus on economics laid bare Republican candidates’ lack of detailed plans for how to grow the economy and help the middle class. Frontrunner Ben Carson, for example, offered a murky and confusing explanation of his tax plan, betraying a poor understanding of economics.

Maria Cardona

But for the most part, the debate had an explosive tone from the beginning. John Kasich railed against the “fantasies” of his opponent’s policies, but despite his outrage, Kasich seemed out of place up on that stage. (Even my lefty husband liked Kasich’s answers tonight, which means he is most likely done in the Republican primary.)

Jeb Bush went after Marco Rubio aggressively and personally about his pitiful no-show Senate voting record. While his assertions were true, Jeb Bush came off as a bit desperate. It was risky and necessary for Bush as he needed a breakout moment. It didn’t work. Jeb is also done.

Ted Cruz stood out and actually focused on substance. This was his best debate yet. Rubio also had an outstanding debate: focused on his policies, attacking the media, ignoring the facts, like most of the other candidates did. It will work well for him. These two GOP Latino candidates did well, but ironically, if either of them were to become president, they would be disastrous for the Latino community.

Carly Fiorina was fine, but did not regain her much-needed past momentum. She is done as well.

Debate winners and losers

For their part, “outsider candidates” Ben Carson and Donald Trump did what they needed to do. They answered their questions, laid low, and no one landed a punch on either. Carson, as the newly minted frontrunner, was the quietest of the bunch and that was the best strategy for him.

In a first of any of these debates, the last half was much more focused on policy. They clearly realized the damage the last two debates had done to their party’s brand and knew they needed to look much more substantive.

Sadly, the policies that passed for substance from these candidates were extreme right-wing policies that work well for their base but do not work well for general election voters– from cutting Medicare and Social Security to building a wall and deporting millions, to failed trickle-down economics, to fact-free statements about climate change, to talking down an economy that has thrived under the last two Democratic presidents and flailed under the last two Republican ones.

The candidates’ lack of gravitas was telling when many of the candidates could not even answer the question from the moderators without demonizing the media. Not one candidate focused on policies that would help middle class families or workers. And on these issues of substance, none of the Republican candidates could hold a candle to any of the three remaining Democrats.

Maria Cardona is a political commentator for CNN, a Democratic strategist and principal at the Dewey Square Group. She is a former senior adviser to Hillary Clinton and was communications director for the Democratic National Committee. She also is a former communications director of the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

William Howell: Bush’s ‘warm kiss’ line not enough to comfort donors

William Howell

For the first time, the Republican debate didn’t march down Trump Avenue. But as these battles go, coherent lines of inquiry or argumentation were hard to find. Instead, candidates prattled to the rhythm of their own stump speeches – as they will continue to do as long as the stage supports 10 candidates.

The gift that just kept giving tonight: bashing the liberal media. Nearly every candidate took a whack, and the audience couldn’t stop applauding.

Winner: Marco Rubio, if only by default. Better than anyone else on the stage, he turns around an attack, he works choice anecdotes into the policy points he makes and he manages the challenges that his party faces on race and income.

Loser No. 1: Bush. His most memorable line of the night was about the “warm kiss” he promised a Democrat who would commit to cut spending. His nervous donors were looking for a lot more.

Loser No. 2: Carson. He spoke rarely; and when he did, he looked as though he might drift off before finishing his time.

Most improved: Chris Christie – yes, C-squared of “tollgate” fame – for his willingness to talk plainly about reforms to Social Security and the growing burdens of debt service. He has dialed back his bluster, he’s leaning into the questions directed at him and he is staying substantive.

William Howell is the Sydney Stein professor in American politics at the University of Chicago.

Alex Castellanos: The power of Ben Carson’s humility

Alex Castellanos

The third GOP presidential debate was a unifying event for Republicans, thanks to the ineptitude of CNBC and its moderators. Only President Obama has done more to bring Republicans together. CNBC should be complimented that it will now be lumped with the mainstream media, considering its feeble ratings.

Dr. Ben Carson performed as he has before, when he has climbed surprisingly in post-debate polls. After this debate, we should expect nothing different.

In the debate’s aftermath, the mystery of Ben Carson’s ascendancy will continue to baffle both the Washington and news media establishments. Stunned by Carson’s rise, our governing elite will keep scurrying about like alien scientists in a 50s sci-fi movie, unable to explain the phenomenon earthlings call “Love,” even with the power of their advanced microscopes.

They will tell us Carson did not meet the debate’s standard. They will say he displayed a tenuous grasp of the issues and of a president’s responsibilities.

They’ll wonder if the simple people in flyover America are contented with the good doctor’s niceness, in vivid contrast with the vicious politics of the moment. Or could his appeal be that he speaks softly, which makes him sound learned and serious?

Perhaps the simple people have found an oracle that satisfies them on an uncomplicated level, much like an inspirational poster that young girls have on their walls? “Whenever you find yourself doubting how far you can go, remember how far you have come!” or another dumb pleasantry, says the poster for Carson for President they envision.

Branding experts will again be brought to the political morning shows to admit that, even as brilliant and all knowing as they are, they just don’t get it. Carson is given no more respect than a throat lozenge that makes people feel better when the media knows we need serious medicine.

Buck Sexton: Captain of Team GOP

Buck Sexton

The strongest performers tonight were Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz.

Of the two, Rubio had the more even night overall. In some moments he looked like the captain of Team GOP, bringing all the candidates under his banner. Rubio managed to strike a balance between standing his ground and maintaining an almost insouciant charm. Polls should show a bump for him.

Cruz, however, had the single best moment of the night when he finally called out the bizarre, obvious undermining of the candidates by CNBC moderators. There’s a difference between tough but fair, and outright ambush. CNBC’s panel was on the wrong side of that line far too many times. Cruz completely turned the momentum of the debate by calling them out.

Chris Christie and Carly Fiorina deserve honorable mentions. Christie had glimpses of past glory when talking about taking on government spending in New Jersey, and Fiorina’s response to the “didn’t you get fired” question was a masterful counterpunch (she clearly has had some practice on that one).

Donald Trump and Ben Carson were mostly treading water, though Trump had a few lines so hilarious, even his most ardent critics would have to concede his skillful comedic timing. Both he and Carson are unlikely to make a significant dent.

Which brings me to the biggest loser of the night: CNBC. The first hour of the debate had far too many negative questions and cheap shots. It’s a network known for business reporting, and the best thing you can say is that certainly isn’t going to change.

Buck Sexton is a political commentator for CNN and host of “The Buck Sexton Show” on The Blaze. He was previously a CIA counterterrorism analyst.

Julian Zelizer: Trump gets pushed from spotlight

The big question tonight was not Carson versus Trump versus Fiorina but, rather, can the Republican establishment candidates rebound? After many months where the experts kept saying these other candidates would fizzle out, thus far they have not. “Outsider” candidate Trump remains a formidable force in this competition, while Carson has been rising in the polls.

So now, as we get closer to Iowa and New Hampshire, the time has come to see whether the establishment candidates can strike back. For Jeb Bush, the issue has been whether the former governor can stop his dramatic fall. For John Kasich, it was whether he could start to convert his strong appeal with Washington’s pundit class – as the only reasonable person in the room – into some kind of election event sizzle.

And for Marco Rubio, the question has been whether he can take advantage of this moment to “step it up” – as his billionaire Super PAC supporter Paul Singer reportedly urged – and emerge as the new frontrunner, the Republican with the best shot of defeating Hillary Clinton. For Ted Cruz, who straddles the world of the outsider and the establishment, his goal is to make himself the most viable candidate who can ride the Freedom Caucus wave.

Fact-checking the candidates’ claims

In the tonight’s debate, which is in many ways a battle over time as much as substance, the so-called establishment candidates can derive some satisfaction. Kasich, for example, set the tone when he said: “Folks, we gotta wake up! We cannot elect somebody who does not know how to do the job. You gotta pick somebody who has experience, somebody who has the know-how, the discipline.” They were finally the center of attention, not Trump.

It was notable that Trump and Carson had limited airtime, and much of the back and forth centered on Rubio, Bush, Kasich, Cruz and others for the first time in a long time.

Of the four Bush had the most trouble gaining traction, especially when his attack on Rubio fell flat.

Rubio and Cruz probably walk away feeling the best from tonight’s performance.

More time is much different than a winning message, but these Republicans will be hoping it’s a start.

Winner: Establishment Republicans

Losers: The Outsiders

Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and a New America fellow. He is the author of “The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society” and co-editor of a new book, “Medicare and Medicaid at 50: America’s Entitlement Programs in the Age of Affordable Care.”

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