The GOP came into Boulder looking for direction due to Trump’s slump, Bush’s underwhelming candidacy, and Carson’s sudden rise to the top of the polls. All these elements have muddled the race over the past few weeks. The CNBC Republican debate provided the party with much-needed direction and set a new tone for the race. As for the actual debate, National Review provided the best and most concise summary with its headline “A Big Night for the GOP’s Cuban-American Duo”, as there were two standouts in the debate: Rubio and Cruz, and it was not close.
Rubio: Senator Marco Rubio came in with two challenges tonight: The first was whether he could rise to the occasion and sustain attacks from opponents as his poll numbers now have him in third place; he passed with flying colors. The second challenge was his underwhelming third-quarter fundraising, which he may also have addressed, per New York Times‘ Jonathan Martin: “That sound you hear: donors stampeding to Rubio.” Rubio was consistently the best performer of the night. When attacked by Jeb Bush, Rubio swatted the former governor away like a horse-fly. Rubio cited Bush’s support for McCain in 2008, who missed a similar number of Senate votes when running for President and ended with a devastating remark: “Someone has convinced you that attacking me is going to help you,” simultaneously making Bush look desperate and petty. When asked about Super PACs, Rubio delivered one of the most memorable lines of the evening, stating: “The Democrats have the ultimate Super PAC; it’s called the mainstream media.” The line brought down the house and set the stage for Cruz’s devastating (and well-deserved) indictment of the moderators.
However, Rubio’s greatest talent is that he consistently and effortlessly weaves his own experience and personal life into his policy prescriptions. When asked about the corporate tax rate, he brought up his local dry-cleaner. When discussing Social Security, he brought up his mother. And when asked about his personal finances, he turned to the broader struggle of raising children in the 21st century. Rubio showed throughout the night that he is a political force of nature. Stay tuned.
Cruz: Senator Ted Cruz, after an impressive fundraising quarter, came in with a different challenge: How would he distinguish himself from Trump and Carson, the two populist-conservative frontrunners? After having done just enough in previous debates so as to not fall off the radar, Cruz showed Republicans tonight exactly why he was a former collegiate debating champion who later excelled as a jurist. He hit all the right notes in appealing to his base: significant tax reductions, abolishing the IRS, and standing up to the Republican leadership in Washington. His standout moment came when he chastised the moderators for asking trivial and hostile questions. In terms of a Republican primary, his best lines from this moment came when he said: “The contrast with the Democrat debate…where every fawning question from the media was which of you is more handsome and wise…That debate was between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks.” In a few short sentences, he castigated the media– a consistently winning theme in a Republican primary– while also harshly criticizing the Democratic Party. It was a shrewd move, and Cruz’s soliloquy got “the highest rating” ever in pollster Frank Luntz’s focus group; Luntz has been polling Republican debates since 1996. Cruz’s performance, combined with strong fundraising both from big donors and the grassroots, as well as what the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza has called “the best campaign of any presidential candidate”, means that Cruz is well equipped to seize this moment in the sun.
Fiorina: There were others who had strong nights as well, but no one approached the level of Rubio and Cruz who were in a league of their own this evening. First among the rest was Carly Fiorina, who turned in yet another strong performance. She exhibited the three ‘C’s that have characterized her past performances; she was: composed, concise, and competent. She did not have a standout moment akin to “Look at that face” from the last debate, but Fiorina exhibited once again that she is one of the strongest and least flappable debaters in the field.
Christie: New Jersey Governor Chris Christie had a good night. He was alternately forthright, forceful, and funny, reminding some Republicans why he was viewed as a frontrunner for the nomination after his landslide re-election in 2013. Moreover, Christie was perhaps the most fluent candidate when it came to discussing entitlements. That said, I don’t think that he revived his candidacy as Rubio, who competes for the same moderate-conservative voters as Christie, outperformed the governor by a mile.
By William Montgomery, Associate Editor