What we learned from the third GOP debate

BOULDER, Colo. — CNBC hosted the third Republican debate here on Wednesday amid new polling that shows the GOP race more volatile than ever before. Here is what he learned:

1. Ben Carson and Marco Rubio were ready for their close-ups

Retired surgeon Ben Carson and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, the candidates considered on the rise before Wednesday’s GOP debate, largely survived a session in which both the moderators and their opponents were scrutinizing them more than in the previous debates.

Carson, over the last week, has moved past Donald Trump in some polls, both nationally and in the key early state of Iowa. Meanwhile, Rubio, while not surging much in polls, has benefited from the struggles of Jeb Bush, with many more moderate Republicans saying the young Florida senator now looks like the most logical candidate to unite the GOP and win the general election.

Carson was questioned on some of his policy ideas, both by the CNBC moderators and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who has suggested that Carson and Trump lack the experience to be president. Carson was repeatedly pressed on his tax plan, which he has explained before as calling for a flat 10 percent tax for all Americans. One of the moderators suggested that idea would balloon the federal budget deficit.

Carson explained that he backs a flat tax, but was flexible on the number and suggested he really supported a rate of 15 percent. That number, unless accompanied by huge spending cuts, would still likely cause vast increases in the deficit. But Carson was largely able to escape tough questions on his ideas with his usual manner of giving vague answers about reducing the role of government in Americans’ lives.

Rubio meanwhile was pushed on two of his vulnerabilities: the large number of Senate votes he has missed since the start of his presidential campaign and his own personal debt problems. Bush, wary of the rising Rubio, bluntly suggested the Florida senator was working equivalent to a “French work week” and that he should “campaign, or just resign and let someone else take the job.”

“I don’t remember you ever complaining about John McCain’s vote record. 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,” Rubio responded, noting that Bush had praised the 2008 campaign of John McCain, who also ran while serving in the Senate.

It’s not clear that Carson or Rubio had some huge moment in the debates that will lift their poll numbers. But they handled the increased scrutiny without committing gaffes.

2. For struggling candidates, it was not a night to remember

Before the debate, Bush and Kasich had been signaling they would use this session to blast their rivals.

Early in the debate, the two did attack. But Rubio dismissed and largely silenced Bush by suggesting he was a desperate, losing candidate on the attack. Trump did the same to Kasich.

“He was such a nice guy. And he said, ‘Oh, I’m never going to attack.’ But then his poll numbers tanked. He has got — that is why he is on the end,” Trump said of Kasich. “And he got nasty. And he got nasty. So you know what? You can have him.”

Rand Paul, another candidate at the bottom of recent polls, was at times complaining moderators were not giving him enough time to talk.

3. The Trump Show was a bit dull

In the days before the debate, Trump, wary of Carson’s rise, had started questioning the doctor’s faith and suggesting he was dull and boring. But the moderators didn’t really push Trump to attack Carson, and the two did not engage in much of the debate.

4. The media was the real target

The Republicans perceived some of the questions asked by the CNBC moderators as attempts to embarrass them or create controversy. And so much of two-hour debate turned into a media-bashing session. Rubio said the press was too easy on Hillary Clinton in the wake of her testimony on Benghazi, while Trump complained about the questions directed at him.

“The questions that have been asked so far in this debate illustrate why the American people don’t trust the media,” said Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.

He added, “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?” he concluded to loud applause.

Republicans often criticize the press for being too liberal and aligned against conservatives. But it’s not clear what any of the candidates gained by these attacks, since nearly all 10 of them at one point took a jab at CNBC.

After the debate, Republican National Committee Chair Reince Priebus released a statement calling the questions “deeply unfortunate.”

“The performance by the CNBC moderators was extremely disappointing and did a disservice to their network, our candidates, and voters… CNBC should be ashamed of how this debate was handled,” Priebus said in the statement.

“People who want to be President of the United States should be able to answer tough questions,” CNBC spokesman Brian Steel said.

5. His rivals are not that worried about Ben Carson

Bush attacked Rubio, and Kasich did take jabs at both Carson and Trump. But the Republican candidates largely laid off Carson, despite his rise in the polls. Their behavior suggests the candidates view Carson’s rise as temporary and are wary of attacking the doctor, who is popular with evangelical Christians. They are likely hoping the inexperienced Carson collapses on his own, and they can inherit his supporters without attacking Republican’s only black candidate.

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