Grading Candidates, Round Three

Contenders who blasted biased moderators seized the day

The real clash Wednesday night at the third GOP presidential debate was between the band of Republican candidates and an onslaught of often questionable attacks from hostile CNBC debate moderators.

Question after question dripped with the stench of deep political opposition research. The moderators pressed Florida Sen. Marco Rubio hard on intimate details of his personal finances, asked Donald Trump if he was running a “comic book campaign,” and pushed New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie on whether he favored taking cash out of the pockets of the elderly.

The candidates who picked up on the moderators agenda early and delivered counter-attacks on the general bias of the media stood out and earned big applause. The contenders who missed the media vs. the conservatives boat were left behind — far behind.

Sen. Marco Rubio
Final Grade: A+

Rubio obliterated Establishment rival Jeb Bush Wednesday night. The junior Florida senator delivered a big applause line blaming media bias for a Florida newspaper editorial calling for his resignation over missed Senate votes. Then, in a sharp exchange with Bush, Rubio called out the former Florida governor for attacking him. “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 chastened Bush, “Here’s the bottom line. I’m not — my campaign is going to be about the future of America.”

Rubio went on to deftly duck a question on his support for more H1B Visas, a program supported by large multinational corporations, but opposed by populist conservatives like Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions. Rubio turned his answer into a lengthy diatribe on the benefits of vocational training in high schools. Wielding a blowtorch won’t likely get you a job in Silicon Valley competing with highly skilled H1B foreigners, but the answer allowed Rubio to escape with few scratches.

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Sen. Ted Cruz
Final Grade: A

Cruz took a sledge hammer to CNBC early in the event calling out hostile questions to several candidates aimed at generating angered responses. “The questions that have been asked so far in this debate illustrate why the American people don’t trust the media,” he said in one of the night’s biggest applause lines. The impassioned diatribe brought thunderous cheers from the crowd as Cruz continued the back and forth with CNBC debate moderators who were anxious to move on, and not at all interested in allowing Cruz to continue.

Cruz continued his offense through a compliment strategy against fellow top-tier contenders and argued vigorously for his populist flat tax proposal. The night was a solid performance for the Texas senator, one he sorely needed if he is to break in to the top tier.

Donald Trump
Final Grade: A-

“No, it’s not a comic book version and it’s not a very nicely asked question the way you say that,” Trump retorted to the first question of the night asked specially to him by CNBC host John Harwood. The moment would come to define the remainder of the debate, with hosts asking opening hostile questions, then taking heat from those candidates deft enough to turn the attack back on the moderators.

Trump was also able to back up the substance of the original question regarding his proposal to reduce the national corporate tax to 15 percent, noting the plan has earned the endorsement of senior CNBC contributor and economist Larry Kudlow.

Trump also did some of what he does best — troll his opponents. Trump cut off any chance Ohio Gov. John Kasich had of gaining some traction early in the night by bringing up the governor’s past relationship with a key player in the 2008 financial meltdown Lehman Brothers, then let Kasich try to explain. But as Ronald Reagan said, “If you’re explaining, you’re losing.”

Gov. Chris Christie
Final Grade: B+

“John, do you want me to answer, or do you want to answer?” Christie chided host Hardwood to laughs from the audience during a back and forth over whether fantasy football should be regulated as online gambling. Christie smartly recognized the big issue of the night had become the clear bias of the CNBC hosts, and he ran with it. Christie also made a point of lobbing most of his negative lines in the direction of the Democrats. “I see a socialist, an isolationist, and a pessimist. And for the sake of me, I can’t figure out which one is which,” Christie said of the Democratic candidates.

Christie’s performance matched his previous strong showings, but the polished outings have done little to elevate the bombastic governor’s poll numbers, and this debate is likely little different.

Dr. Ben Carson
Final Grade: B

CNBC host Becky Quick opened the assault on Carson from the moderators’ bench by questioning the math behind a 10 percent national flat tax, despite the fact Carson had only floated the idea as a rhetorical notion comparing it to the Biblical tithe. “It would be closer to 15 percent,” Carson said as Quick continued to press on the 10 percent number as if it were an official policy proposed by the former neurosurgeon.

Carson came off as his usual heavy-eyed, soft-spoken affable self. He is well-liked by many Republican voters precisely because he comes off as unpolished and authentic. Carson kept that manner up Wednesday night.

Former Gov. Jeb Bush
Final Grade: F

Jeb Bush came to the third GOP debate ready to do one thing — hit Marco Rubio for the chance to be the Establishment champion. Bush failed, utterly. Rubio was a step ahead Bush from the beginning.  “That’s exactly what the Republican Establishment said, too, Why don’t you wait in line?” Rubio answered in response to a question on whether he was being too impatient in running for president. By distancing himself from the Establishment brand, Rubio set up Bush’s attack to look even more flimsy, like a kid swatting at a piñata and hitting himself in the nose instead.

When Bush did finally swing, it was on the issue of Rubio’s less-than-stellar attendance record while running for president.

“Can I say something up here, because I’m a constituent of the senator … (and) there are a lot of people living paycheck to paycheck in Florida as well. They are looking for a senator that will fight for them each and every day,” Jeb jabbed.

But Rubio was ready. “The only reason why you’re doing it now is because we’re running for the same position,” he retorted, “and someone has convinced you that attacking me is going to help you.” The moment was crippling for Bush,  who spent most of the remainder of the debate sulking and giving wonky based answers on the economy. Although he did say his fantasy football team is 7 and 0, so he’s at least a winner in his fantasies.

Gov. John Kasich
Final Grade: B-

Kasich followed in the ill-fated footsteps of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker by using time in his first question to poke Trump. The tycoon responded by lampooning the Ohio governor for his ties to Lehman Brothers. “This was the man that was a managing general partner at Lehman Brothers when it went down the tubes and almost took every one of us with us,” Trump said, “including Ben and myself.”

Kasich then had to use his next allotment of time defending himself from the association with the major player in the 2008 financial collapse. He bumbled through a few more stiff answers and then disappeared into the shadows.

Former Gov. Mike Huckabee
Final Grade: C+

For Mike Huckabee, the flame of 2008 has burned out. Huckabee has great lines complimenting the depth of the GOP field, but as a standout candidate Huckabee offers no compelling reason to back him. His line reminding voters he has beaten the Clinton machine was well-received, but it is his only calling card.

Sen. Rand Paul
Final Grade: B-

Rand Paul succeeded at one thing — he repeated enough times that he intended to filibuster the looming budget deal set by outgoing Speaker John Boehner and Democrats that I, and probably other viewers, remembered to watch for it on Thursday.

Other than that, Paul gave some lofty exultations to liberty and small government, but remained as forgettable as ever. The threat of a filibuster looks more like a Hail Mary.

Carly Fiorina
Final Grade: D

Fiorina went from a deep back-bencher to a primetime contender almost purely off of her outsized debate performances. After the second GOP debate, Fiorina went from single digits to 15 percent, only to slide back down to low single digits before this debate. Fiorina needed to summon her debate magic again, and from the open, she did making fun of herself for not smiling. While her answers were polished and her demeanor strong, she failed to cut through the fog and simply did not distinguish herself.

Final Grade: D

The moderators opened a full-fledged offensive against the candidates using flimsy facts, which they were often unable to back up when countered by the candidates themselves. The debate, while shorter than the three-hour CNN slugfest, dragged at the end. The biggest applause lines of the night were when candidates knocked the moderators for their overt bias. CNBC should be the subject of the post-debate fact checks for their fast and loose use of opposition research on the candidates.

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