Republicans will remember the media’s role in Wednesday’s CNBC presidential debate more than anything that might change the direction of the Republican contest. But this debate — the third among a massive GOP field — came at a time when new dynamics are unfolding in the race.
Dr. Ben Carson has now overcome businessman Donald Trump as the front-runner in Iowa and nationwide polls. Last week, former Florida governor Jeb Bush cut his payroll by 40 percent — in yet another sign of his struggling campaign. US Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz are on the rise — a trend that will likely only continue after their strong debate performances. Meanwhile, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Ohio Governor John Kasich, and US Senator Rand Paul are dangerously close to not making the cut for the main debate stage next time.
Despite these shifting dynamics, five truths emerged from this GOP debate that will continue through the nominating contests next year.
1. The protégé has become the master.
One hundred days before the first votes are cast in Iowa and New Hampshire, and it is amazing that a two-term former governor of a major state and heir to one of the country’s greatest political dynasties is losing. Not only is Bush losing, but he is losing to his onetime protégé, Rubio.
On Wednesday night, Rubio didn’t just school Bush in the art of the debate. It was like Rubio was playing a new video game, and Dad walked in the room confused at how the controls worked.
Rubio had a standout performance. He doesn’t have the campaign infrastructure or the money that Bush has. But Rubio does have the talent to possibly build both after this performance — and especially if he can repeat it at the next GOP debate on Nov. 10.
2. Ben Carson will continue to perplex.
Carson appeared lost trying to explain how his flat tax plan, which he has said is based on tithes, would work. What’s more, Carson admitted during the debate that he didn’t really picture himself being president until he saw his poll numbers.
But Carson’s soaring place in these surveys — he just bumped Trump from the lead in a recent one — doesn’t speak to the ability of how he could balance a budget, execute a war, or negotiate a trade deal. Carson didn’t give any confidence that he could do any of those things in this debate.
And Carson may remain on top of the polls anyway because many Republican voters just like the guy.
3. Moderators can get in the way of a good debate.
The moderators, unfortunately, were the story of the night. Republicans on stage and far away from it criticized the primary CNBC anchors behind the table: Carl Quintanilla, Becky Quick, and John Harwood.
From the very first question, they let the candidates steamroll them. The most notable exception was when, at the top of the show, they cut off Bush before he criticized Trump, and that mini-debate never materialized.
Later on, they didn’t have the research to back up their questions (even if Quick may have been correct in her spat with Trump). Then the candidates flat-out attacked them, drawing cheers from the audience. Cruz and Rubio, especially, were able to capitalize on the moderators’ weaknesses to have break-out moments in the debate.
4. The key to winning a large debate is seizing the moment.
Ohio Governor John Kasich and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie both learned a lesson from Carly Fiorina’s first two debates: Seize the moment.
Both came in knowing that they needed to interrupt and interject themselves into the conversation. A feisty Kasich benefited from a back-and-forth discussion with Trump in the beginning, during which the Ohioan was able to boast about his experience with budgets. It was Kasich’s most memorable exchange since the first debate.
Christie also gained ground when he took off on a question about fantasy football contests that no one even asked him about. He was able to jump into any conversation much better than some of his colleagues who also show polling in the low single digits, like Rand Paul. The Kentuckian clocked in with the lowest portion of talk time throughout the debate at just six minutes, according to a tally from National Public Radio.
5. No one has a jobs plan.
In every poll of the race, voters name the economy and jobs as the top issue facing the country. The CNBC debate, run by a channel dedicated to financial news, had this tagline: “Your money, your vote.”
But what was painfully obvious after two hours of the debate, is that none of the candidates has a detailed plan to create more jobs. There are tax plans. There are entitlement plans. But there was nothing specific from any of the candidates on how they would create wide-scale job growth.