2016: Who Won the Third Republican Presidential Debate?

imageTwo senators had very good nights, while a former Florida governor struggled more than ever.

Boulder might be the most relaxed city to host a presidential debate so far this in this campaign, but the stage at the Republican debate Wednesday night was anything but chill.

Hosted by CNBC, the debate was billed as focusing on economic policy, but the most important thread running through it was rancor. Candidates yelled at moderators. Moderators yelled at candidates. Jim Cramer and John Kasich yelled at, well, everyone. There were interruptions, anger, and frustration. And from Jeb Bush, there was an offer of a “warm kiss.” Maybe you had to be there—though it didn’t make a great deal of sense at the time, either.

The two candidates to thrive were a pair of senators who have been slowly but clearly gaining strength over the last few weeks: Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz. Rubio has emerged as something of a bettor’s favorite: Though he still lags in the polls, pundits who assume Donald Trump and Ben Carson can’t win have tabbed him as the man to benefit. He showed why his political abilities are so well regarded. The polished, poised Rubio repeatedly turned what might have been tough questions around on the questioner.

Pressed on why he had missed so many Senate votes and why a Florida paper had called on him to step down, he offered an answer about liberal media bias. When Jeb Bush tried to step in to pile on, identifying himself as a disgruntled constituent, Rubio steamrolled him with ease. Rubio also drew a question—yet again—about his own financial difficulties. Having gotten the question many times, he parried it with delight, saying it proved that he understood the troubles of everyday Americans in today’s economy. “And I make a lot more than the average American. Imagine how hard it is for people making $50, $60,000 a year,” he said.

Cruz was also in fine fettle, delivering strong answers. The Texan offered far more specific economic policies than any of his rivals, though some of those ideas were politically risky or economically suspect. Cruz recommended partially privatizing Social Security, an idea that was roundly rejected when President George W. Bush attempted it. He called for auditing the Federal Reserve—stealing thunder from Rand Paul, who stood elsewhere on stage—and for abolishing the IRS, replacing it with a postcard-sized tax return. Somewhat bizarrely, Cruz also appeared to call for a return to the gold standard.

But Cruz skipped a chance to deliver a specific answer about the budget deal under consideration in Congress right now—as did most of his fellow candidates. While the candidates discussed jobs and income inequality, their prescriptions tended toward the superficial: Get government out of the way, they said, and growth would follow. Perhaps the only policy that united most of the candidates was the need to protect existing federal entitlements for today’s seniors.

Carly Fiorina, who proved to be one of the strongest debaters in the last two meetings but has fallen off the map since the last debate, was comparatively subdued and didn’t dominate as she did before. She called for a three-page tax code (to the moderators’ incredulity), on populist grounds. She attacked Hillary Clinton, and yet again, she defended her record at HP, where she was fired by the board. Moderators seem to insist on asking this question over and over, even though her answer has remained consistent—that she was sacked in a political struggle and did what was needed to save the company.

Ben Carson was also, as usual, subdued—though so far it’s worked for him. Carson has been shaky when discussing policy, but he mostly managed to avoid potholes. However, when pressed by Becky Quick on the fact that his plan would create huge deficits, he insisted it wouldn’t, saying growth would replace it—the classic Laffer Curve argument. But his answer doesn’t conform with any serious analysis. Carson also parried a question about Mannatech, a questionable supplement company for which he cut ads, by saying it was a liberal attack and that he wasn’t really involved. That worked on stage, but it’s likely to bring new, unwelcome scrutiny to his relationship with Mannatech—a story that, by the way, was broken by the conservative National Review.

This wasn’t Donald Trump’s night: He remained silent for long stretches, and much of the time he spent didn’t make him look good. After he denied to Becky Quick that he’d criticized H1B visas, Quick came back after break and pointed out that she read the quote on Trump’s own website. (Whoops!) Early on, Trump attempted a return to his political roots—way back in June!—with a stirring rant about the need to secure the border, the issue that took him to the top of the polls. Yet just as he delivered a strong defense of progressive taxation at the last debate, Trump sounded like a liberal Democrat on campaign finance Wednesday night: “Super PACs are a disaster, they’re a scam, they cause dishonesty, and we’ve got to get rid of them.”

Weirdly, Trump came prepared with a double-barreled set of attacks on Kasich, the Ohio governor. Kasich’s debate strategy seemed to be to build on comments he made earlier this week, when he complained, “I’ve about had it with these people.” Kasich was ready for a fight, and the first question of the night went to him—for unclear reasons, it was the classic interview question about what one’s greatest weakness is. Kasich ignored the prompt and offered a jeremiad against the unseriousness of his rivals. (To be fair, most of the other candidates also ignored the question and just gave their opening statements; only Trump really complied, saying he was too trusting.) Kasich tried to maintain this Howard Beale act throughout the debate, but he seemed to gradually lose energy as it failed to bring him much speaking time. Also struggling to get screen time were Huckabee, Christie, and particularly Paul.

But the real mystery Wednesday night was Jeb Bush. The onetime frontrunner has been in near free-fall the last few weeks, and over the weekend huddled with his family in Houston to try to salvage his campaign. His aides offered two hints about his strategy going forward: Let Jeb be Jeb, and attack Rubio. How did that play out Wednesday? Bush’s only real attack on Rubio was handily shut down early, and he never tried again. But if letting Jeb be Jeb meant Bush wouldn’t try to radiate any more energy than he had before, the candidate followed it to a ‘T’. He seemed a bit bored and listless; his answers meandered here and there. While Huckabee, Christie, and Paul lashed out at moderators for not giving them more questions, Bush seemed resigned to it.

Bush did deliver one truly memorable quotation—though memorable isn’t always a good thing. When asked whether he’d accept a deal that offered $10 in spending cuts for $1 of tax increases, he replied: “You find me a Democrat for cutting spending $10, I’ll give ’em a warm kiss.” It seemed to capture many of the criticisms of Bush’s campaign—a little forced, a little awkward, and worst of all, tepid rather than hot. Many pundits predicted that if Bush didn’t deliver a strong performance tonight, it might be the death knell for his campaign. He’d better hope they were wrong about that—because this was not a strong performance.

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