NOBODY FIGHTS like somebody cornered. What Johnson observed to Boswell in the 18th century is just as true, in a political context, now as it has been in any other: Much like an impending execution, the specter of political embarrassment on the national stage concentrates the mind wonderfully.
The latest evidence of that was Wednesday’s Republican candidates’ debate at the University of Colorado at Boulder, a debate-stage experiment in the fight-or-flight phenomenon. The stakes were higher for everyone; unlike the four candidates in the undercard status by way of poor polling, this was the varsity squad. But even the varsity has its stars and its ... lesser lights.
So everyone know the third debate was likely to be the pivotal one, the make-or-break event at which public perceptions and political fortunes start to turn into cement, for better or worse. That said, everyone loves a sudden hero, the scrappy little horse that comes from the back of the field to win at the wire (at least once). It’s presidential politics. Anything could happen.
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Well, pretty much everything did happen. It was a very good night — maybe even a breakout night — for Sen. Marco Rubio of Texas and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, two social-conservative darlings who’ve been dwelling near the bottom of the remaining Republican field. It was a fairly good night for Ben Carson, with a caveat; he wasn’t much more voluble on Wednesday than he was in the previous debates; sooner or later Carson needs to take over a room, assert his personality and his message in a bigger way. Christie was Christie, Huckabee was Huckabee, Fiorina was spoiling for a debate with Hillary Clinton ... the usual suspects did their part.
Example: Bush tried hard to make a big deal out of Rubio's tendency to miss important Senate votes while campaigning for president. “Marco, when you signed up for this, this was a six-year term, and you should be showing up to work,” Bush said. “I mean, literally, the Senate – what is it, like a French workweek? You get, like, three days where you have to show up? You can campaign, or just resign and let someone else take the job.”
Rubio, 18 years younger than Bush, schooled his fellow Floridian. “I don’t remember you ever complaining about John McCain’s vote record,” Rubio said, referencing Bush's self-comparison to McCain, Arizona GOP senator, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee, and another candidate who missed Senate votes. “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 said amid cheers from the audience.
Even when Bush scored a few rhetorical jabs, Rubio deflected and responded. MJ Lee of CNN put it pretty well: “Bush's decision to go after Rubio for his work ethic in the Senate showed that he believes Rubio is blocking his lane. Bush, struggling to break through to the top of the GOP pack, was clearly trying to deliver the attack of the evening -- but Rubio quickly and effectively counterpunched.”
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WHEN ASKED by CNBC moderator Becky Quick a question about his checkered financial past, Rubio, who has admitted having troubles managing money (his own and the Republican party’s) in the past, pushed back by not answering Quick’s question directly but by making backhanded swipes at Jeb Bush and Trump for benefiting from family fortunes. It’s a classic debate-stage tactic and Rubio did it as well as anyone.
“I didn’t inherit any money — my dad was a bartender and my mother was a maid,” said Rubio, retreating to the safe harbor of his familiar up-by-the-bootstraps theme. “I’m not worried about my finances; I’m worried about the finances of everyday Americans who today are struggling in an economy that is not producing good-paying jobs.”
Rubio took shots all night, firing on other candidates and going on the offensive, or protecting himself well when forced into a defensive crouch. Even billionaire attention enthusiast Donald Trump was largely compelled to STFU and watch as Bush and Rubio went to war with each other. Oh, Trump brought his usual campaign shtick — one part Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, one part Huey Long — but it was scarcely brandished. On Wednesday he knew he wasn’t the main attraction, and he didn’t try to be.
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“No candidate looked very presidential at the third Republican presidential debate tonight,” wrote Frederick E. Allen of Forbes. And that was probably the whole point. Questions about fantasy football didn’t help in the gravitas department, but the debate at UC Boulder (dear alma mater) wasn’t really about looking presidential. That comes later, in the runup to the general. That’s the beauty contest, this is the knife fight.
Now, on the eve of the primary season, candidates are looking to project the core of their personalities for primary-season voters. Now, it’s all about looking strong, aggressive, rhetorically nimble and, well, badass. In this, some candidates did better than others.
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BUT BY SOME acclimation reached on TV and in social media, the biggest loser of the night wasn’t Bush (whose superPAC over the weekend announced plans to go after Rubio, and hard).
Christie’s comment about fantasy football was a swipe at Bush, who’d previously crowed about having an undefeated fantasy football record (maybe he should have taken that NFL commissioner job he was offered in May 2006). But it was a more direct jab at the evening’s sorriest performer. The media took it in the head on Wednesday night.
Cruz discovered that readily available target of opportunity, one often favored by conservatives, and on this night symbolized by moderators Quick, Carl Quintanilla and John Harwood of CNBC.
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At one point, finally reacting to moderator questions that veered from the off-message to the ridiculous, Cruz had enough.
“This is not a cage match,” Cruz said. “And 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?’ How about talking about the substantive issues people care about?” Rapturous applause to follow.
Media bashing was a subtheme that ran throughout the debate, with the candidates sometimes openly warring with the CNBC moderators. And it went further than that.
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“The CNBC network is one of your media properties, and its handling of the debate was conducted in bad faith,” Priebus wrote. “We understand that NBC does not exercise full editorial control over CNBC’s journalistic approach. However, the network is an arm of your organization, and we need to ensure there is not a repeat performance.”
“I have tremendous respect for the First Amendment and freedom of the press. However, I also expect the media to host a substantive debate on consequential issues important to Americans. CNBC did not.”
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YOU CAN be sure of one thing, then: At the next Republican debate, expect more serious, substantive questions from the moderators — more questions that delve into policy prescriptions, fewer gotcha interrogatories meant to trip up the person answering.
That night, the official interlocutors will double down on questions tied directly to the fantasy that matters, the fantasy only one person on that stage will make real: achieving the Republican nomination.
Image credits: All debate images screengrabs from CNBC, except: Debate moderators: Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press. CNBC logo: © 2015 CNBC.