It was the worst debate ever, but a few candidates emerged unscathed—particularly Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, Wednesday night’s two big winners.
And it became very clear, very quickly that the GOP, despite its numerous factions and endless ideological divisions, had a common, old, familiar enemy: the media.
It was the first Republican debate in which the candidates largely seemed to avoid attacking each other—even the normally bellicose Donald Trump mostly held his fire. Everyone was looking for a grand showdown between the billionaire and Ben Carson, the man who replaced him as the leader in Iowa.
Instead, Trump complimented Carson on teaming up with him to cut the debate short. The mainstream media, this time led by a team of largely hapless CNBC moderators who repeatedly tried and failed to draw blood, were the opposition every candidate onstage looked to score points off.
That said, it wasn’t a complete lovefest.
Former Florida governor Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio finally brought into public a cold war that, until Wednesday night, was fought behind the scenes with staff whispers and opposition research, as well as vague quips about the older generation.
It was on.
After Rubio fielded a question about his poor attendance in the Senate, Bush pounced with clearly well-practiced attack... that went horribly awry.
“Marco, when you signed up for this, this is a six-year term,” Bush told Rubio. “The Senate, what is it, like, a French workweek? Like three days where you have to show up? You can campaign. Or just resign and let someone take the job. There are a lot of people who are living paycheck to paycheck in Florida, and they’re looking for a senator who can fight for them each and every day.”
The easy jab at the French—a move Bush’s brother deployed frequently—wasn’t quite the big applause line he might have expected. Rubio quickly responded with an almost Trump-like answer, saying Bush was only going after him because his strategists said it would be the smart thing to do.
“The only reason you’re doing it now is because we’re running for the same position, and someone has convinced you attacking me is going to help you... I will continue to have tremendous admiration for Gov. Bush,” Rubio said.
That was clearly not how it went in Bush’s debate prep.
Then there was Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who promised a crowd in Westerville, Ohio, on Tuesday night he was “sick of being polite” about the “crazy” proposals he was hearing from his opponents and that he would be coming into the Colorado debate hot.
And he did, almost too hot.
He, like many candidates before him, went after Trump right out of the gate, warning, “We are on the verge, perhaps, of picking someone who cannot do this job.”
Later, when asked which proposals were “crazy,” Kasich laid into the frontrunners again.
“Folks, we’ve got to wake up,” he said. “We cannot elect somebody that doesn’t know how to do the job. You’ve got to pick somebody who has experience, somebody that has the know-how, the discipline.”
With that, he awakened The Donald, who tore into him for his role as a managing partner at “Lehman Brothers when it went down the tubes.”
But aside from those notable flare-ups, the field saved up its best lines for the media.
Oddly enough, the two candidates leading the charge against their questioners were the two candidates the media has christened frontrunners despite their middling poll numbers: Cruz and Rubio.
Cruz—who has the most cash on hand of any of the GOP contenders and perhaps the best ability to communicate with the conservative base—insinuated that the media was doing the Democrats’ bidding, aiming much tougher questions at the Republicans than they would at Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, “the Mensheviks” and “the Bolsheviks,” in his description.
Rubio, who again showed why he’s widely considered the quickest and most articulate candidate in the race, referred to the moderators as representatives of a Democratic super PAC.
Trump, as usual, was the first person to insult a moderator, dismissing a question from John Harwood right off the bat.
But it was Cruz who had what was perhaps the rallying moment of the debate when he ripped into the moderators and portrayed himself as the defender of the rest of the field.
“You know, let me say something at the outset. The questions that have been asked so far in this debate illustrate why the American people don’t trust the media,” he said to applause.
But that was just the beginning.
“This is not a cage match. And if 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?
“The contrast with the Democratic debate, where every fawning question from the media was, ‘Which of you is more handsome and why—’” he continued, before the moderators cut him off and switched to another candidate, as the crowd cheered.
It’s a tried and true strategy for Republicans. Newt Gingrich was able to lead the field briefly in 2012 by positioning himself as a kind of media ombudsman. But this is the first debate of the 2016 cycle in which all the candidates saw the benefit in attacking their hosts. Instead of going after each other, they formed a united front against their questioners.
The amount of time each candidate was given seemed random, with Bush, one of the great fundraisers of the field, speaking less than any other candidate. Still, it was clear that some of the contenders had better nights than others. Cruz and Rubio racked up points throughout.
For example, when Rubio was asked about his finances—which, until his successful book, were full of loans and debt—he began talking about the challenges of raising a family in the 21st century and deftly turned it into a way to talk about his tax plan as a boon for the middle class.
Kasich and Chris Christie beat low expectations. Rand Paul and Mike Huckabee, silent through much of the start of the debate, dutifully showed up yet again. Carly Fiorina was adequate and well-rehearsed. Paul probably needed a stronger performance than he gave Wednesday night, but by resisting the urge to launch another kamikaze attack at his rivals Trump and Christie, he at least could go to sleep knowing that no one had gotten the better of him.
And then there were Carson and Trump, the two frontrunners in the polls who most political observers assume cannot win the nomination. Neither was particularly strong, not that that has mattered in the past.
Carson, especially, has a way of sleepwalking his way through these contests in a way that apparently endears him to the evangelical Republican base, and despite his top-of-the-hill status, hardly drawing the most attacks.
And Trump was Trump, firing out insults while at least attempting to not go overboard on his opponents.
Or at least the ones sharing a stage with him.
Trump ended the debate by bragging how he and Carson banded together to keep the debate to two hours instead of three.
“They lost a lot of money. Everybody said it couldn’t be done,” Trump bragged. “Everybody said it was going to be three hours, three and a half, including them, and in about two minutes I renegotiated it so we can get the hell out of here. Not bad.”
After this debate? Not bad at all.