This was indisputably the worst-moderated debate of this young cycle, and perhaps the worst-moderated debate ever. If the moderators at the next Democratic debate exhibited one-half of the hostility, skepticism, and disdain that CNBC’s did tonight, Hillary, Bernie Sanders, and Martin O’Malley would have on-stage meltdowns.
Because of this, Ted Cruz won the night when he took a rhetorical flamethrower to the moderators, spelling out the dismissive, DNC-talking-point-style questions they had posed to each candidate. He contrasted it with the comparative softballs the Democrats received from CNN. The audience in the hall roared in approval, and judging from the reaction on Twitter, a lot of viewers at home were applauding, too. It was Cruz’s best moment of the campaign so far.
Cruz just seemed to be dramatically better tonight in general: His answers were concise, succinct, and direct, and they hit the right emotional notes. When a guy gets this much better so fast, you usually want him to pee in a cup to see if he’s juicing.
Marco Rubio had the second-best moment of the night when he declared, “Democrats have their own SuperPAC. It’s called the mainstream media.” Jeb Bush and the CNBC moderators both came after him, and there’s little sign they did much damage. What’s fascinating about the incoming fire is that Rubio’s still running a distant third nationally. The fact that so many people are aiming for him is an indicator that people don’t think he’ll be a distant third for long.
Carly Fiorina was as good as the previous debate. (I liked how her glare somehow spurred Harwood to give her a few extra moments at the end.) Her fade in the polls since the last one was one of the stranger phenomena of this cycle. She’s mastered this debate format; now she needs a venue where she gets more time and isn’t ignored for 15-minute stretches. Also, she needs a way to stay in front of the cameras in-between debates. “In your heart of hearts, you want to see a debate between Hillary Clinton and Carly Fiorina.” Yup.
Jeb Bush tried to attack Marco Rubio and I don’t think it really worked for him. Attacking doesn’t seem to be in Bush’s natural instincts. Explaining policies, maybe, but not attacking. It’s difficult to run for president if you can’t attack a rival effectively, and just about impossible to come from behind.
Donald Trump was strangely subdued, other than an early effort to lambaste John Kasich. Maybe he’s determined that he doesn’t need to be at the center of the storm every night. Trump seemed incrementally more policy-focused tonight, and there’s little reason to think he hurt himself. Of course, because he’s Donald Trump, he continued to tread new ground in American politics; he’s the first candidate to boast about how he managed to negotiate a shorter debate time, and to point out the network was charging $250,000 for a 30-second ad.
We were told to expect a pugnacious John Kasich tonight, and we saw about half of that. He never quite tore into his opponents as expected, but he made some good points on higher education.
Chris Christie had another speaking-directly-to-the-camera good night; we’ll see if this does much for his numbers in the coming weeks. “We’re seriously talking about fantasy football?” he asked incredulously toward the end of the night. A few moments later, when Harwood interrupted him, he zinged, “Do you want me to answer, or do you want to answer? Even in New Jersey what you’re doing is called rude.”
Certain candidates got so little time, they might have been better served by the less crowded under-card debate. Rand Paul, Mike Huckabee — these guys disappeared for long stretches.
I wrote the original story on Ben Carson and Mannatech back in January. I thought the question was fair but mangled in its wording. The simplest explanation is that Carson didn’t know that much about the company and certainly didn’t know about the allegations of false advertising, but probably should have done more due diligence. Whether you think this is a deal-breaker for a presidential candidate is up to you, but in the grand course of Carson’s life, not doing enough research on a company paying him for speeches and taping some videos is pretty small compared to, say, separating those conjoined twins.
Having said that, Carson’s claim tonight that he has no relationship with the company is disingenuous horsepucky. Hey, check out his appearance in a Mannatech video!
Completing the awfulness of CNBC’s performance, the opening question about the candidates’ biggest weaknesses was inane. This debate seemed to have more cross talk where neither candidate nor the moderator could be heard clearly. Becky Quick looked bad when she asked Trump where she had heard a quote she attributed to him. The crawl at the bottom of the screen showing us what Seth MacFarlane and the New York Times’ Farhad Manjoo thought of the debate was stupid and added nothing.