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Presidential Horse Race 2016: Media and Democrats lose big in CNBC Republican debate

With recent polling showing Ben Carson gaining on – or passing – Donald Trump in the 2016 Republican presidential race, you had to figure the dynamic would be different for Wednesday night’s CNBC Republican debate, the third such forum in this cycle.

CNBC Republican debateIt was different – but that’s a good thing. The candidates engaged in an entertaining and sometimes contentious exchange – but unlike the CNN debate last month, most of the angst was directed towards the moderators and the Democrats.

At least the primetime portion of the program, that is.

The 6 p.m. “Happy Hour” debate was largely inconsequential, once again. I keep hoping Bobby Jindal will get a chance to debate with the polling leaders, though there wasn’t anything he said that will likely earn him the opportunity. His “everyone has skin in the game” tax plan is interesting, though I don’t think it will draw much favor.

Lindsey Graham comes off as a wise-cracking good ‘ol boy bumbling idiot who repeatedly mentions how poor his grades were (and henceforth, how dumb he is). George Pataki believes in Global Warming (as does Graham) – a non-starter with conservatives. Rick Santorum keeps echoing his themes from 2012… and he also defended the Export-Import bank, the poster child for big government “pick the winners” corporate welfare.

Jindal is the only one of the four who offers something different. I can think of several candidates in the primetime event who should give up their places to Bobby. But it likely won’t happen.

These guys are like the minor leagues… fun for the whole family, but you know the caliber of play is much higher at the next level. In order for them to move up, they had to generate buzz – and they failed miserably.

Perhaps the most humorous part of the early event was listening to the CNBC analysts afterward, who said Lindsey Graham “won” the debate. Graham was funny, for sure, but most of his good lines are retreads from the earlier debates. He defended the congressional budget deal and once again stood up for amnesty. Is he serious?

Back to the main event

With Trump’s dip in the polls, his air of invincibility has been shattered. The billionaire real estate developer had led for over a hundred days until this week, so it just seems like people were ready for a change.

Did The Donald peak too early or does Carson’s rise have staying power? Will historic trends finally emerge at some point to allow one of the establishment candidates to challenge the “outsiders?” Will Ted Cruz eventually take over as the consensus choice of conservatives, which so many have predicted?

It’s hard to say, but it’s doubtful anything that happened on Wednesday night will greatly shake-up the race. With the two leaders way out in front, it was incumbent upon the challengers to try and make up ground. For that reason, the discussion was terse at times and downright harsh at others.

Even before the program started there was tension.

The squabbling began well before the candidates took the stage. First there was Donald Trump and Ben Carson jointly signing a letter demanding that the time be limited to two hours (including commercial breaks) after the candidates literally sweated through the 3+ hour marathon CNN debate last month.

(It should be noted that debate moderator John Harwood said the program was never going to be longer than two hours – and Trump said he was lying!)

Then, as the advance teams arrived in Boulder this week, there were complaints about the “greenrooms” reserved for the candidates and their staffs. Alex Isenstadt of Politico reports, “During a tense 30-minute meeting at the Coors Event Center, which was described by three sources present, several lower-polling campaigns lashed out at the RNC. They accused the committee of allotting them less-than-hospitable greenroom spaces while unfairly giving lavish ones to higher-polling candidates, such as Donald Trump and Ben Carson.”

Sour grapes? Not really. If you take a look at the photos provided, the top polling candidates certainly did get better treatment. Rand Paul’s original space looked like a public restroom.

Then there were complaints from the lower-tier candidates about the criteria going into next month’s debate (set for November 10 in Milwaukee).

And there was plenty of griping from many different sources – deservedly so – concerning John Harwood’s liberal bias.

In other words, there was lots of kindling to stoke a fire on Wednesday night. The candidates didn’t disappoint.

Winners… or just the ones who stood out

It should be said at the outset that every candidate – except for maybe Jeb Bush – did well. Carly Fiorina was the consensus “winner” of the CNN debate, but there probably won’t be one for this debate.

Bush was the “loser” because he virtually disappeared. With a race dominated by the “outsiders” and the presence of three other establishment candidates who are simply more entertaining if not substantive, Jeb gets lost.

He’s a product of bygone era. Not the oldest candidate on stage, but in watching Jeb you see his father and brother standing right there alongside him like ghostly, silent partners. They only get to talk through Jeb, but they never quite disappear.

Jeb comes across as a good man. But people are looking for a radical shakeup in the office of the presidency and there are just SO many better candidates to choose from.

Trump was his usual self. Carson stumbled in trying to explain his tax plan, but when he talks about values and the need to get rid of political correctness, he’s very effective. (He’s also the only one who really talks about the Constitution – along with Ted Cruz.) Carly Fiorina smiled a lot more and once again got her points in, but didn’t dominate this time.

John Kasich began by haranguing Trump and Carson without naming names. He’s this season’s nutcase without a constituency. Marco Rubio was sharp again – and didn’t sweat as much. Chris Christie was a commanding presence, clearly his best debate yet.

Mike Huckabee played effectively to emotions and got in some pithy lines (“It’s like a 400 pound man saying he’s going to go on a diet but I’m going to eat a sack of Krispy Kremes before I do it.”)

Ted Cruz was more forceful in this debate and made a very good impression, partly due to a confrontation with moderator Carl Quintanilla. Cruz won’t win many congeniality contests among his colleagues, but the grassroots loves him.

And finally, Rand Paul was probably the most effective in articulating what’s wrong with big government at present. This was the Rand Paul we were expecting to see from the beginning. He didn’t even mention legalizing marijuana – though you know the moderators were dying to ask him about it.

Ben Carson passes the test – at least with his people

With the theme of this debate being “Your Money, Your Vote,” it figured to be a big challenge for Ben Carson, the new leader in the race.

Ben’s a doctor who excels at talking about helping people and making inroads on cultural issues. He’s a quiet leader who largely eschews hard numbers in favor of broad themes and talks about solving problems with intellect rather than pinpoint plans.

If you need a guy to deliver a sermon, Carson’s your guy. If you need someone to preside over the church budget meeting, turn it over to the council president.

Carson will probably never be good at discussing numbers. John Harwood pressed him on his tax reform proposal, for example, which is basically a flat tax centered on the Biblical concept of tithing – and Ben wasn’t really able to explain how it would make up for potential revenue lost.

When you’ve got a panel of liberal journalists armed with stats in front of you, you’re going to look like a fool in presenting the broad overview of an idea. There’s no way to win – especially when Ted Cruz is standing right next to you and can explain how his plan will affect every person in America.

Pundits will no doubt forecast that this is the beginning of the end for Carson, but in doing so, they once again miss the point. Ben’s supporters don’t care about the numbers and the specifics. They see a man who’s overcome tremendous obstacles in his life and is proud to say he could be the most conservative candidate in the race.

Carson didn’t really have any memorable or funny lines in Wednesday night’s debate, but he didn’t have any catastrophic errors, either.

He, along with Trump, represents the biggest change from the current mess that is our political system. Therefore, he remains tremendously appealing.

Cruz battles the moderators – Cruz wins by a knockout

I’ve always enjoyed the old saying, “I refuse to have a battle of wits with an unarmed person.” That should be Ted Cruz’s slogan – but then again, if he thought that way, no one could engage him at all. He’s that smart.

Cruz was the debate champion at Princeton. He knows how to present arguments, as he’s done on several occasions before the Supreme Court. He doesn’t back down, offers his side with humor and leaves his opponents looking stupid.

He did so again on Wednesday night. Cruz was relatively inconspicuous in the first two debates but changed course in the CNBC event.

“The questions that have been asked so far in this debate illustrate why the American people don’t trust the media,” Cruz said to wild applause. “This is not a cage match.”

“Nobody watching at home believes that any of the moderators has any intention of voting in a Republican primary,” he concluded.

Game, set, match. Cruz “won” the debate right there in terms of establishing the most memorable moment. The moderators had been trying to set up another Republican vs. Republican shouting competition similar to the CNN event, but Cruz wasn’t about to let them get away with it.

The moderators even had the nerve to insinuate that Trump was acting as a “comic book hero” in waging his campaign. Can you imagine that kind of condescending treatment against Hillary and Bernie?

Cruz bought the Republicans some respect. They all owe him thanks.

Rand Paul disses Paul Ryan

As a candidate who’s polling near the bottom of the “primetime” candidates, Rand Paul didn’t get many opportunities to speak. But when he did talk, he had a lot to say.

Paul didn’t mince words in saying he didn’t think much would change in the House under the “leadership” of Speaker-to-be Paul Ryan.

“I don’t think there will be much change with new leadership in the House. I’m not worrying about keeping the government open, I’m concerned with bankrupting the American people.”

Rand mentioned several times he was intending to filibuster the Boehner/Ryan/Obama budget deal starting today in the Senate. He was able to keep up his last filibuster for almost a full day – we’ll see how his stamina holds out this time.

Hopefully he’ll have some help.

Regardless of the outcome, Paul could get a bounce from this issue. Would it be significant enough to vault him close to the lead? Not a chance.

But his campaign will gain some respectability – and that’s probably the best he can hope for at this point.

Trump didn’t pave any new roads

Donald Trump wasn’t the commanding presence that he was in the previous two debates. It seemed like the candidates were going out of their way not to attack him – which would only serve to give him more “rebuttal” speaking time.

He gave a somewhat evasive answer on visas for skilled immigrants and only defended his tax plan by saying “Larry Kudlow likes it.” Jeb Bush wouldn’t even look at him. John Kasich directed attacks at him, but wouldn’t name him.

Have Republicans finally made peace with The Donald?

Not really. But the people who like Trump will continue to do so. When he made his closing statement, he talked once again about how “America doesn’t win anymore.” It’s a theme that resonates with a lot of people.

The Donald’s problem is he can’t seem to convince skeptics to join his cause. He attacks everyone but makes it personal. It’s almost as if he’s isolating himself. His numbers will remain strong heading into 2016, but if something doesn’t change, he’ll be left behind to second or third place.

And anything less than #1 is losing to The Donald.

Final takeaways from the CNBC fight-fest

Marco Rubio delivered one of the best lines of the night when he claimed the mainstream media serves as the “Super PAC of the Democrats.”

Citing last week’s Clinton testimony on Benghazi, Rubio suggested the media’s light treatment of the Democrat frontrunner’s truth-challenged testimony was the best defense any candidate could make.

It was a well delivered attack. Rubio even bashed the Republican establishment in one of his answers. Perhaps he’s trying to put some distance between himself and the big money interests of the party.

It likely won’t work. Wednesday night’s debate was interesting and fun to watch. The interaction between the candidates and the moderators was worth the price of admission alone.

As a conservative, I’m not sure we’re much closer to being able to nail down one candidate as “the one” for us this time around. But it certainly appears there’s a deep bench of potential hopefuls.

We’re in much better shape than we were in 2012, that’s for sure.

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Debate #???

I am confused. If the media and the Democrats were the losers, then apparently you feel that the "boss", Mr. V was completely wrong when he called the debate a disaster.