Donald Trump all but disappeared at center stage. Mild-mannered former neurosurgeon Ben Carson was vague on policy but promised his tax plan would add up. And all of the top Republican contenders for president sparred eagerly over taxes, immigration and the proposed federal budget Wednesday while taking shots at the news media.
With so many candidates still in the race, each of them worked harder than ever to get noticed and prove themselves. As a group, they were more aggressive than in previous debates, interrupting each other, lobbing criticisms and repeatedly challenging the moderators.
Still, no one candidate delivered a standout performance or completely stumbled, all but ensuring the next debate, in two weeks, will continue to have a sizable cast. If anyone scored. it likely was Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida.
As the debate began, much attention was focused on Jeb Bush, who had only months ago been considered the man to beat, and who now, even by his own admission, needed a comeback. He got more aggressive, battling Rubio. But it wasn’t clear he did what he needed to do, and he might have helped Rubio more than himself.
The rivalry between Bush and Rubio flared when a moderator questioned the Florida senator’s ambitious rise as a “young man in a hurry” and asked him about missing votes on Capitol Hill.
Rubio called a Florida Sun-Sentinel editorial calling for his resignation because of missed votes “evidence of the bias that exists in the American media today” and recited a litany of senators who ran for president and missed votes without similar editorial condemnation.
“Marco,” Bush chimed in, “when you signed up for this, this was a six-year term, and you should be showing up to work. I mean, literally, the Senate – what is it, like a French work week? You get, like, three days where you have to show up? You can campaign, or just resign and let someone else take the job.”
Rubio was ready for the criticism, noting that Bush didn’t criticize 2008 GOP nominee John McCain for missed votes.
“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.”
The candidates bashed the media even more than each other, starting with Trump responding angrily when moderator John Harwood asked if his was a “comic book campaign.”
“It’s not a comic book, and it’s not a very nicely asked question, the way you say that,” he retorted.
Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas renewed the attack on the CNBC moderators, saying to applause that “the questions that have been asked so far in this debate illustrate why the American people don’t trust the media.”
“This is not a cage match. 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 the people care about?” Cruz said.
Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey objected to CNBC questioning about government regulation of fantasy sports betting. And Rubio bashed the Florida Sun-Sentinel for an editorial calling for his resignation because of repeated missed votes in the Senate.
“This is another example of the double standard that exists in this country between the mainstream media and the conservative movement,” he said.
Rubio declared that “Democrats have the ultimate super PAC, it’s called the mainstream media.”
The former Florida governor stepped it up as he struggles with sliding poll numbers and a downsized campaign. He interrupted to criticize Trump’s tax plan and accused Rubio of failing to do his job as senator. But he was given little time to speak as much as he would have hoped about his two terms as governor.
After a surge in the polls, debate moderators wouldn’t allow Carson to fade in the background as much he has during previous debates. The former neurosurgeon was vague when pressed on how his tax plan would raise enough to avoid causing monstrous deficits. Carson’s plan is inspired by the biblical concept of tithing, but Carson was unsure at the debate of whether it would be 15 percent or something else, and he wasn’t clear on how much it would raise. “When we put all the facts down you’ll be able see it works really well,” he said.
As assertive in the third debate as ever, Crhistie accused the three Democratic candidates of being “a socialist, an isolationist and a pessimist.” Christie initially had trouble getting his voice heard on such a packed stage, but got more air time later in the debate as he looks to improve his dwindling poll numbers and fill his bank account.
Cruz continued to portray himself as an outsider in Washington, adding a strong criticism of the media to his criticisms of his party. He didn’t get many opportunities to engage with rivals on the crowded stage. But the debate did not do anything to hurt his standing, where he sits on the most money of any Republican candidate, comes in the top half of polls behind outsiders Trump and Carson, and is popular with conservatives.
The business executive and only woman on stage delivered a solid performance, though she failed to provide the knockout she did in the last debate. Six weeks ago, she turned in a strong debate performance and saw a spike in both media mentions and the polls, but since then she has faded back into the presidential race background.
More than any other candidate on stage, Huckabee struggled to be noticed in the debate, except perhaps when he defended Social Security, saying “people paid their money, they expect to have it.”
For the first time, the Ohio governor, who had refused to engage Trump and Carson, blasted both of them. “We cannot elect someone who doesn’t know how to do the job,” he said.
The senator from Kentucky, struggling in the polls and with fundraising, came out attacking both parties for driving up the debt, pledging to filibuster the compromise debt limit bill. “I will stand firm, I will spend every ounce of energy to stop it,” he said.
The senator from Florida defended his poor attendance in the U.S. Senate as he campaigns for president, turning questions into a counterpunch against those who criticized his attendance but not similar records of other candidates in the past. Despite tough questioning from the moderators, he remained poised, and a strong performance could help him as he seeks to catch up to Trump and Carson.
The real estate mogul didn’t dominate as he has in previous debates, becoming something of an afterthought as other candidates attacked one another. He defended his plan to lower individual corporate and income taxes, saying it would make the economy take off “like a rocket.” He didn’t score any major points but also didn’t have any major stumbles.
Lesley Clark of the Washington Bureau contributed.