GOP debate winners and losers

BOULDER, Colo. — The third Republican presidential debate was controversial only in part because of the candidates. The tone of the questioning from CNBC moderators was hotly debated — and widely criticized — in the aftermath. 

But if the network did not have a good night, who were the other losers, and who came out on top?

WINNERS

Sen. Ted CruzTed CruzTrump wins Washington state primary Overnight Cybersecurity: House to offer bill on government hacking powers Overnight Tech: Rubio, Cruz take up internet domain fight MORE (Texas)

The Texas senator finally showed the skills that made him a champion debater in his college years. His attack on CNBC and the media early on in the debate won some of the biggest cheers of the evening and set the tone for much of what followed. Cruz delivered an effective mix of informational detail and conservative populism throughout. The Texan, not always at his best when attempting to show a lighter side, even drew some laughter right at the start. Asked about his biggest weakness, the hard-charging Cruz replied with a smile, “I’m too agreeable, easy-going.”

Sen. Marco RubioMarco RubioNew Mexico GOP gov. won’t attend home-state Trump rally Rubio: 'It’s not that we lost, it’s that Donald Trump won’ Santorum endorses Trump after 'long heart-to-heart' MORE (Fla.)

Along with Cruz, Rubio was the other big winner. He parried an early attack from Jeb Bush about his uneven record of Senate attendance, telling the former Florida governor that “someone has convinced you that attacking me is going to help you.” Bush never recovered. Rubio also pivoted skillfully around some awkward questions. When asked about his handling of his personal finances, he talked about his modest roots and student debt. He also had a memorable line to join in the general media-bashing, referring to mainstream outlets as the “ultimate super-PAC” for Democrats.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie

Christie had another strong night, but will it move the needle for him among a GOP electorate that has been largely immune to his appeal? Christie delivered one of the most memorable moments of the night when he reacted with angry incredulity to a question about whether fantasy football was gambling and Bush’s nearly minute-long answer. “We have $19 trillion in debt. We have people out of work. We have ISIS and al Qaeda attacking us. And we’re talking about fantasy football? Can we stop?” he said. 

Christie’s combative persona is well-suited to the debate stage and, true to form, he tangled with the moderators as well. Interrupted several times by CNBC anchor John Harwood late in the debate, Christie shot back, “John, do you want me to answer or do you want to answer? ... Because I’ve got to tell you the truth, even in New Jersey what you’re doing is called rude.”

Businesswoman Carly Fiorina

The former Hewlett-Packard CEO may not have electrified the crowd as she did during her first outing on the prime-time stage six weeks ago in Simi Valley, Calif. But Fiorina is clearly one of the most polished communicators on the stage. She seemed to have carved out a more defined niche than before as well, circling back in her answers to her belief that government involvement tends to exacerbate problems rather than ease them. Fiorina's poll numbers have fallen significantly from their highs in the wake of the California debate, however. She had a good night in Boulder, but whether she can reverse her decline is a different question.

Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson

The former surgeon won by virtue of not losing. This was Carson’s biggest moment so far, facing a prime-time audience just after he wrested the lead in Iowa away from Donald TrumpDonald TrumpTrump wins Washington state primary Protests turn violent at Trump’s New Mexico rally Hundreds of writers sign petition opposing Trump MORE and as he begins to nudge ahead in nationwide surveys. Those facts put a figurative target on Carson’s back, but he incurred no serious injuries. To be sure, Carson’s soft-spoken, sometimes ponderous style is not to everyone’s taste. He also seemed a little unsteady when asked about his connections to a controversial maker of dietary supplements. But there were no critical mistakes for Carson and therefore no reason to believe that his momentum will ebb in the wake of the clash.

 

MIXED

Businessman Donald Trump

Trump for the first time failed to dominate the debate proceedings. Given his temperament, he is unlikely to be happy about that. One important unknown in the race is what happens to Trump’s appeal if he comes to seem like just another candidate, albeit an extroverted and colorful one. On the other hand, Trump got off some clean shots, especially countering an early attack from Ohio Gov. John Kasich. The business mogul, whose downfall has been predicted at every turn, also once again escaped any scathing embarrassment.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich

The Ohio governor very obviously decided going into tonight’s debate that he needed to make an impact and couldn’t fade into the background as he had at the September bout in California. He came out of the gate forcefully, criticizing his rivals without naming them — though the implicit targets were clearly Trump and Carson — for “fantasy tax schemes.” But Trump fired back by reminding viewers of Kasich’s work for Lehman Brothers and his lowly poll ratings. Kasich sought to counter, but he largely faded as the night wore on.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee

All three of Huckabee’s debate performances have followed the same basic template. The former Arkansas governor is a proficient debater who has his moment, but he has done nothing dramatic enough to vault into the top tier of candidates. It was the same story once again in Boulder: a solid but unspectacular performance. 

 

LOSERS

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush

Bush’s performance was almost universally panned, and with good reason. The early front-runner in the race has faded badly and needed a big moment here to re-establish his momentum. Searching for it, he overstretched with an attack on Rubio, contending that he was so seldom in the Senate that he was treating it like “a French work week.” But Bush got caught by an effective counter-punch and the fight seemed to go out of him after that. He was virtually invisible for long stretches. Aides at the debate voiced frustration that he did not get more airtime, but Bush was not an assertive presence. The concern that already existed among his supporters and donors will surely now be deepening toward panic.

CNBC

Conservative complaints about media coverage are nothing new, but criticisms of CNBC extended far and wide in the aftermath of the Wednesday's debate. A general whiff of arrogance permeated several of the questions from the moderators. Within moments of the debate ending, even Vanity Fair magazine — hardly a redoubt of conservatism — had a story on its website headlined, “How CNBC lost its own G.O.P. debate.” Even the network’s pre-debate punditry was widely criticized. 

Sen. Rand PaulRand PaulOvernight Defense: VA chief 'deeply' regrets Disney remark; Senate fight brews over Gitmo Paul ties release of 9/11 docs to defense bill Will Ted Cruz let it go? MORE (Ky.)

The Kentucky senator was a marginal figure throughout the night and only rarely seemed comfortable injecting himself into the back and forth. The libertarian-leaning Republican is lagging way behind in the polls, and there were no moments on Wednesday night that seemed likely to change that.