BOULDER, Colo. — The Republican presidential candidates engaged in a feisty free-for-all on Wednesday night, trading personal barbs as the 10 top candidates vied for the favor of conservatives in a highly volatile and unpredictable presidential primary.
In a CNBC debate ostensibly about the economy, the candidates squabbled, frequently speaking at once and interrupting to gain attention.
“This is not a cage match,” Senator Ted Cruz lamented at one point, training his fire on the media and the moderators. “How about talking about the substantive issues that people care about?”
A sharp exchange between Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio illustrated the degree to which mainstream candidates struggling with low poll numbers turned on one another in a bid to rally the establishment wing against the outsider candidates leading the race, Donald Trump and Ben Carson.
Bush pointedly criticized Rubio for missing most of his Senate votes, saying that he — as one of Rubio’s early supporters and current constituents in Florida — felt that Rubio was not doing his job.
“I expected that he would do constituent service, which means he shows up to work,” Bush said. “Marco, when you signed up for this, this is a six-year term, and you should be showing up to work . . . Or just resign, and let somebody else take the job.”
Rubio, obviously ready for the attack, pointed to other previous senators — including John McCain — who missed just as many votes.
“Someone has convinced you that attacking me is going to help you,” Rubio said, looking at Bush, his onetime mentor. “It’s not.”
The debate contained no obvious moments that would change the narrative of the campaign. Many observers were watching to see if Bush would have a performance strong enough to reverse his slide in the polls. He made no mistakes, but lacked a major breakthrough that would begin to calm his skittish donors and supporters. Rubio, with a crisp and confident delivery, appeared to solidify his standing as a rising mainstream alternative to Trump and Carson.
Trump’s strategy also seemed to shift from his combative, dominant performances in the first two debates. This time a stretch of nearly 30 minutes passed without Trump saying a word.
But the pace of the campaign is picking up, with the next debate to take place in less than two weeks — another chance for the candidates to shake up the race.
On Wednesday, the CNBC moderators pressed the candidates on tax-cutting plans that don’t add up.
Carson — the retired neurosurgeon who has begun to overtake front-runner Trump in some polls — defended his flat tax proposal. He disputed that his proposal would gut budgets and said he would reveal more details in order to prove it. He said that while he opposes gay marriage, all people should be treated equally.
“They shouldn’t automatically assume that because you believe that marriage is between one man and one woman that you are a homophobe,” he said. “And this is one of the myths that the left perpetrates on our society, and this is how they frighten people and get people to shut up. You know, that’s what the PC culture is all about, and it’s destroying this nation.”
During one round of questioning, moderators pressed Carson over ties with a nutritional supplement company, Mannatech, that has been accused of deceptive claims, and whether he made an error in associating himself with it.
“I did a couple of speeches for them, I do speeches for other people,” Carson said. “They were paid speeches. It is absolutely absurd to say that I had any kind of a relationship with them. Do I take the product? Yes. I think it’s a good product.”
Trump never took on Carson — or, for that matter, many of his opponents, seeming to try to project a calmer presence. (“I’m not blaming these people at all,” he said several times.) One of the few instances he went on the attack was to criticize Ohio Governor John Kasich after Kasich said Trump’s plan to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants was unrealistic and heartless.
“He was so nice. He was such a nice guy. And he said, ‘Oh, I’m never going to attack.’ But then his poll numbers tanked. That’s why he’s on the end,” Trump said, disparagingly referring to Kasich’s placement on the stage and drawing laughter.
Trump denounced gun-free zones, saying the approach gives attackers free rein to mount attacks on places like schools.
“That’s target practice for the sickos, and the mentally ill. That’s targets. They look around for gun-free zones,” Trump said. “I think gun-free zones are a catastrophe. They are feeding frenzy for sick people.”
Trump also answered for a gun permit he has in New York.
“I do carry, on occasion. Sometimes a lot,” he said. “But I like to be unpredictable. Unlike our country, by the way, which is totally predictable.”
Criticism of the news media became a recurring theme throughout the evening, as candidates challenged the moderators, for both the tone and the facts of their questions.
The crowd booed some questions, and cheered loudly when New Jersey Governor Chris Christie told moderator John Harwood, “Even in New Jersey what you’re doing is called rude.”
“You know, the Democrats have the ultimate super PAC,” Rubio said. “It’s called the mainstream media.”
Without a jolt from the debate, some candidates could soon decide to get out of the race, following the lead of Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin, who dropped out after the previous debate six weeks ago. Each of the contenders in the lower tier seemed determined to prove it would not be they.
Christie had a strong second half of the debate, displaying some of the plain-spoken gusto that drove him to national prominence. Cruz injected himself into the fray numerous times, showing conservatives why they like his combative style.
But Senator Rand Paul seemed to fade. Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee entertained with humor and witticisms but did nothing to separate himself from the muddled field.
The debate format and subject provided a platform for Trump and Carly Fiorina to promote their private sector experience — but it came with risks for each of them.
Trump has a mixed record in Atlantic City, taking his casino companies into bankruptcy four times before abandoning the city altogether. Fiorina had a rocky tenure as chief executive at Hewlett-Packard, where she oversaw 30,000 job cuts before she herself was forced to resign.
“Yes, I was fired over a disagreement in the boardroom,” Fiorina said, blaming “boardroom politics.’’
Fiorina rode a strong performance during the last debate to a boost in the polls and attention. But in an illustration that the race is about more than just strong debates, she has since faded, back to 4 percent in a recent CNN poll after rising to 15 percent following the last debate.
The debate was crucial for Bush, whose campaign last week announced staff cutbacks and who, by measure of his drop in the polls, wasn’t at the center of the stage.
Bush has establishment backing, government experience, and a family that has dominated GOP politics for decades. But while those things have helped him raise money and build a formidable campaign operation, it has also been a hindrance in an era of Tea Party politics and insurgents. He has so far proven to be incapable of threading the needle.
“You know, I am by my nature impatient,” Bush said early on in the debate, when asked to assess his biggest weakness. “And this is not an endeavor that rewards that. You gotta be patient. You gotta be — stick with it, and all that.”
He continued to say that he does not project anger — something that has caused him trouble when trying to win over an angry electorate.
“I can’t fake anger,” Bush said. “I believe this is still the most extraordinary country on the face of the Earth. And it troubles me that people are rewarded for tearing down our country. It’s never been that way in American politics before.”
Trump has lately seemed to express an emotion rarely seen from him: a measure of humility. A New York Times/CBS News poll released on Wednesday had Carson with a narrow lead nationwide, 26 percent to 22 percent, marking the first time in months Trump hasn’t been at the top.
“Probably in terms of the applying for the job of president, a weakness would be not really seeing myself in that position until hundreds of thousands of people began to tell me that I needed to do it,” Carson said. “I do, however, believe in Reagan’s 11th commandment, and will not be engaging in awful things about my compatriots here.”