Story highlights

Marco Rubio cast Jeb Bush as desperate with Wednesday night's night's biggest counter-punch

Ted Cruz, Ben Carson and other Republicans bashed CNBC's moderators

Washington CNN —  

Republican presidential candidates took several direct swings at each other, and even more at the media, in Wednesday night’s debate. Many of the barbs needed little translation but some were more subtle. All of them had meaning.

Here’s CNN’s decoding of four key lines in the third GOP presidential debate:

Ted Cruz: “The questions that have been asked so far in this debate illustrate why the American people don’t trust the media.”

Decoded: Here’s an attack all Republicans can love.

One thing the entire field agreed on Wednesday night was that the moderators represented just about everything wrong with the mainstream media in the United States.

Cruz’s decision to attack the press, rather than soon-to-be-House Speaker Paul Ryan – per the moderator’s set-up – offered insight into his thinking: Happy to wage intra-party battles while on Capitol Hill, Cruz saw more upside in a line that nearly all conservatives agree on.

“Nobody watching at home believes any of the moderators have any intention of voting in a Republican primary,” Cruz said.

He was far from alone. Rubio said that the media is a massive pro-Democratic super PAC. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee refused to attack Trump. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie asked why the debate was steered to talking about fantasy football rather than the litany of substantive issues facing the country. And afterwards, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus blasted CNBC for how it handled the debate.

Marco Rubio: “Someone convinced you that attacking me is going to help you.”

Decoded: Jeb Bush is desperate, flailing and out of control of his own campaign.

The 44-year-old Rubio is ascendant, watching his stock grow in the polls while the 62-year-old Bush struggles to escape single digits, despite much better funding.

The two Floridians – Bush, the former governor who counted Rubio, then the state House speaker, as an understudy – eventually had to clash: Their donor bases and core supporters overlap too much.

And Rubio set a trap, Bush walked into it.

Bush, who is often uncomfortable on the attack, went for an opening as CNBC’s moderators pressed Rubio on his missed votes in the Senate, during his presidential campaign.

“Marco,” Bush said, “when you signed up for this, this is a six-year term, and you should be showing up to work.”

That’s when Rubio – who seemed to anticipate Bush’s attack – responded with his withering rebuttal.

If Rubio ultimately becomes the GOP establishment’s top choice, this could prove to be the crucial moment.

Bush, meanwhile, is finding the debate stage to be among his campaign’s biggest challenges. His discomfort with the setting led him to miss another key opportunity, as moderators hushed his efforts to attack Donald Trump and Ben Carson over tax plans that Ohio Gov. John Kasich quickly called a “fantasy.”

Opinion: Rubio steals the show while Bush fades

John Kasich: “This stuff is fantasy. Just like getting rid of Medicare and Medicaid. Come on, that’s just not – you scare senior citizens with that. It’s not responsible.”

Decoded: In Kasich’s view, the Republican electorate has gone nuts allowing Carson and Trump to become its front-runners.

The Ohio governor’s long experience – he chaired the House Budget Committee and shepherded a Midwestern swing state into a the budgetary black – might be the stuff presidential resumes are made of.