Sens. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz delivered the strongest performances in Wednesday night’s Republican presidential debate, a group of GOP strategists told CQ Roll call, and should see a bounce in their poll numbers between now and the next faceoff in two weeks.
“Rubio delivered yet another solid performance in which he demonstrated what a good candidate he is. And how formidable he could be in November," said Jason Roe, who has managed and advised congressional campaigns, including that of former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas.
"Cruz, I think, had his best night yet. And I think that was courtesy of CNBC. How he took them on and the tone in which he took them on was a real turning point for him and the conversation,” Roe said. “He exposed the ridiculousness of the questions and ingratiated every Republican watching to him.”
Cruz drew perhaps the loudest applause of the night when he turned on the moderators and the tone of their questions, saying they illustrated why the American people don’t trust the media.
"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?'"
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus led the charge against CNBC afterward, criticizing its “improper and unprofessional display.”
CNBC should be ashamed of how this debate was handled. #GOPDebate— Reince Priebus (@Reince) October 29, 2015
After attacking a question on online fantasy football, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie took issue with being interrupted by John Harwood, one of the network’s moderators. “Do you want me to answer or do you want to answer? Because I got to tell you the truth, even in New Jersey what you’re doing is called rude,” Christie said.
Rubio, Cruz and Christie. Plus Fiorina, I'd argue. Jeb did not turn it around tonight. Trump and Carson missed an opportunity. CNBC? Wow. — Stuart Rothenberg (@StuPolitics) October 29, 2015
Bob Kish, a veteran GOP admaker from Ohio whose client list includes a number of conservative Republicans, called the network the night’s biggest loser.
“ The questions were immature and petty,” he said. “I actually thought they might ‘jump the shark’ and question Chris Christie about his weight.”
Going into the debate , most of the attention was on front-runners and outsider candidates Donald Trump and Dr. Ben Carson, and on former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush because of his falling poll numbers and reports of donors in revolt over his campaign’s lackluster performance so far.
The consensus afterward was that the front-runners did nothing to hurt themselves nor did they do much to stand out.
“Donald Trump and Ben Carson seemed to play it safe because they are leading in the national polls,” said Republican strategist Ron Bonjean, a longtime Republican communicator who’s worked for leadership in both the House and the Senate. “It was odd that [Ohio Gov.] John Kasich was the only Republican candidate to take on front-runners Donald Trump and Ben Carson. It seemed that most of them just hoped the moderators would go after Trump and that he would simply implode.”
James Harris, a Republican consultant who has worked on campaigns in the Midwest and Texas, thought the debate, which was focused on the economy, should have been in Trump’s sweet spot.
“Donald Trump missed an opportunity to display his knowledge on the issues — particularly the economy. He isn't exclusively a reality TV expert, but he didn't display the breadth of his competency,” he said.
Roe called Trump’s performance his worst of the three debates, “not even as entertaining as he's ever been.”
And Carson “was just as uninspiring as ever." But Roe joked that he'll probably shoot up in the polls now.
Asked to explain that, Roe said he couldn’t. Maybe, he said, it's because "he's such a polite, likeable, thoughtful guy."
"No matter who you're supporting, you can't help but have a soft spot for the guy."
The audience apparently did, booing heartily after CNBC’s Carl Quintanilla asked whether Carson’s association with a controversial nutritional supplement company called his "vetting process or judgment" into question.
After the jeers died down, Carson shrugged toward the audience and said, “They know.”
Bush did capitalize on the fantasy football question, pointing out that his team is 7-0, but he did little to quell concerns about the direction of his campaign.
“Jeb might be 7-0 in Fantasy football but he's 0-3 in debates,” Kish said.
Roe said Bush didn’t hurt himself, “but I don't know that he did what he needed to do. These formats are not his strong suit. You can never wait for a debate for Jeb to win the day."
Florida strategist Rick Wilson called Rubio the night’s winner: “He played his game, not the moderators’."
Rubio seemed prepared for a jab from mentor Bush’s attack on his voting record in the Senate on the same day that the Florida Sun-Sentinel called for his resignation if he wouldn’t vote more in the Senate.
“I don’t remember you ever complaining about [2008 GOP nominee] John McCain’s vote record,” Rubio said. “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.”
Bonjean cited that turn as one of the reasons he thought Rubio won the night.
“Rubio was like a verbal ninja turning the Jeb Bush attack around effectively enough to make it his own moment,” he said.
Rubio always brings questions/answers back to the little guy. Smart.— Stuart Rothenberg (@StuPolitics) October 29, 2015
Most of the strategists said former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina delivered another strong performance, but doubted she would be able to gain much traction from it.
“Carly is smart and articulate, but she just can't capitalize on her debate performances,” Kish said.
Fiorina had a breakout performance in the last GOP debate, and that provided her with a spike in her polling, but the numbers flattened out soon after.
"Carly delivered another solid performance but don't think she got the time to capitalize on it,” Roe said. “I also think part of the appeal of her first two debates, particularly the second, was that for a lot of people, that was the first time they saw her. They didn't have an expectation. They were blown away."
Now people expect her to perform that way and are no longer blown away, Roe said.
As for the rest of the field, most said the governors — Christie and Kasich — had their moments.
“Kasich did what he came to do — mix it and up get feisty, and focus on his record,” Roe said. “He did a good job of that, but I don't think he was a breakthrough. The same with Christie."
Bonjean thought Christie and Cruz made their own moments.
“Chris Christie and Ted Cruz also did extremely well by jumping into the fray and giving their own answers without prompting,” he said.
Most panned Sen. Rand Paul and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and questioned the viability of their campaigns.
While no one saw the Wednesday night debate, or the undercard that preceded it, as a reason for anyone to drop out of the race, “Paul and Huck ought to,” Wilson said.
Kish thought Paul’s days are numbered.
“I think Rand is next to drop. I bet he stays in for the Milwaukee debate [in two weeks] but he's clearly on his last leg.
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