The Roundup: Republicans take chips off their shoulders in Boulder

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BOULDER, Colo. – A Republican presidential debate billed by host network CNBC as a 10-candidate showdown over economic issues will instead be remembered as a night in which GOP candidates of every stripe took potshots at the media and put the moderators on stage in their crosshairs.

“The questions that have been asked so far in this debate illustrate why the American people don’t trust the media,”a  riled-up Ted Cruz scolded moderators John Harwood, Carl Quintanilla and Becky Quick. His critique followed a query from Quintanilla, who asked the senator from Texas if his opposition to a higher national debt limit showed that “you’re not the kind of problem-solver American voters want.”

Recurrent salvos against the moderators set the tone of the night before a live audience that egged on the attacks with cheers and applause. The exchange between Cruz and Quintanilla occurred about 25 minutes into the two-hour forum and followed an attack by Marco Rubio over a suggestion that he should resign because he had missed so many votes in the Senate. That unleashed broadsides from Donald Trump and Chris Christie as well.

Trump, the New York real estate developer and reality television star, “won” the debate, in the view of 46 percent of those who watched and participated in an online CNBC poll, followed by Cruz at 20 percent and Rubio, a senator from Florida, at 16 percent. Based upon viewership totals, the network itself made out pretty well as roughly 14 million tuned in, the most for a show in its 26-year history.

Allegations of bias

Yet the prevailing view of media observers and political pundits was that the network and its moderators wound up as the biggest losers. One, Lloyd Grove of the Daily Beast described Harwood as playing the role of “media scoundrel” in an article headlined “Lamestream GOP moderators’ total debate fail.” Brent Bozell, a frequent critic of news outlets and the president of the Media Research Center in Reston, Virginia, described the debate as an “encyclopedic example of liberal media bias.”

As the event began to wind down, Trump boasted about his leadership skills, pointing out that he and Dr. Ben Carson, who leads the polls in Iowa, objected to a three-hour debate and convinced the network to make it two hours instead. He took another jab at CNBC leaders and Harwood in the process.

“In about two minutes, I renegotiated it so we can get the hell out of here,” Trump said, drawing cheers from a crowd which at times booed the moderators. Harwood claimed it was never supposed to be more than two hours, prompting Trump to call him a liar, in so many words.

On Thursday, Carson told reporters he is demanding a new debate format and added that he has reached out to fellow GOP candidates to present united demands for change. 

“What it has turned into is a ‘gotcha,’” Carson said.

Carson’s personal ‘gotcha’ moment surfaced when Quintanilla asked about his involvement with a nutritional supplement company called Mannatech that recently paid a multi-million dollar settlement over deceptive marketing claims. Carson responded by saying he had no involvement, a claim that was later exposed as questionable at best. Quintanilla, however, kept pushing the soft-spoken Carson, a move that drew a cascade of boos from the crowd.

“See,” Carson said after the audience interrupted the interrogation, “they know.”

Party officials were quick to condemn the network. CNBC “should be ashamed” of its handling of the debate, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Preibus declared immediately after the event. But the next day, some conservative commentators said Preibus and other GOP leaders should be held accountable for letting CNBC host it.

“After 15 minutes it was clear this this was not a debate, but a verbal shooting gallery set up by CNBC, with the targets the Republican candidates and the shooters their biased antagonists from the press,” Ed Meese, a former Reagan administration attorney general, told CNS News.

“Ted Cruz accurately described what was going on,” Meese said. “Whoever selected the ‘moderators’ should be fired and the RNC leaders who allowed it should be condemned.”

Cruz’s moment

After citing the public’s lack of trust in the media, Cruz declared that the debate should not be a “cage match.”

“Look at the questions,” Cruz said, then derisively recounted them: “‘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 the people care about,” Cruz demanded.

The Texan’s comments prompted Republican pollster Frank Luntz to check the score of an instant-response focus group he led in Iowa. Called a “live-dial group” because it lets people in the group immediately register their positive or negative reactions to what is said on stage, using so-called people meters. The group’s members were selected from Republican voters ranging from conservatives to moderates, a strategy intended to mimic the variety of people expected to participate in primary voting.

Luntz, who has led such group evaluations during presidential debates for nearly 20 years, said on Twitter that Cruz’s ripping critique registered the highest score he has ever seen. A higher number corresponds with greater approval.

“I’ve never tested in any primary debate a line that scored as well as this,” Luntz told Megyn Kelly of Fox News. “It was all about what was wrong with the CNBC moderators and what’s wrong with the media.”

The other players

Ohio Gov. John Kasich has focused considerable campaign time speaking about his successes in turning around his state’s finances, going from a deficit to a budget surplus, and energizing its economy to push the jobless rate in September down to 4.5 percent, significantly below the 5.1 percent national rate. During the debate he once again sounded those themes.

Trump, however, was ready with a retort:  “First of all, John got lucky with a thing called fracking, OK? He hit oil. Believe me, that is why Ohio is doing well.”

Fracking refers to hydraulic fracturing, a relatively new technique that helps drillers to economically extract oil and gas from shale rock formations. Development of the method led to booming crude production in North Dakota and Texas and has also spurred big increases in U.S. natural gas output, including from the Marcellus shale formation beneath parts of New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio.

Former Hewlett-Packard chief executive Carly Fiorina’s best moment came when she seized on a chance to focus on Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential frontrunner. While Clinton was mentioned by name 22 times during the debate, Fiorina laid down the gauntlet for the former secretary of state.

“I am Hillary Clinton’s worst nightmare,” Fiorina said. “And in your heart-of-hearts, you cannot wait to see a debate between Hillary Clinton and Carly Fiorina.”

Rubio drew widespread praise, from CNN, which declared “Marco Rubio steals the show,” to Business Insider, which called it a “dominating performance.”

Some of Rubio’s most memorable moments came during various standoffs with Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor who once served as a mentor to the senator. Rubio also didn’t shy away from lashing back at the CNBC moderators after being pushed on missing votes in the Senate.

“In 2004, John Kerry ran for president missing close to 60 to 70 percent of his votes,” Rubio said, adding that he couldn’t recall editorial writers suggesting that Kerry, then a Massachusetts senator, should resign. Rubio, playing on the media bias theme, suggested that it targets Republicans, drawing cheers from the crowd.

“This is another example of the double standard that exists in this country between the mainstream media and the conservative movement,” Rubio added.

Christie’s performance will likely be best remembered for his challenge of the moderators after they asked the candidates a question about daily fantasy sports gaming websites.

“Are we really talking about getting government involved in fantasy football,” the New Jersey governor asked, drawing laughter from the crowd. “We have people out of work. We have ISIS and al Qaeda attacking us. And we’re talking about fantasy football? Can we stop?”

For Bush, a night of fiery jabs and crossfire left him memorably on the sidelines looking in, without landing any punches. The mood in the Bush camp following the debate felt “like a wake,” according to Chuck Todd of NBC News. Bush still has the backing of the biggest super-PAC fund in America but that may not be enough. On the debate stage, Bush took a swipe at Rubio over his Senate attendance record, echoing Trump and asking why he didn’t resign the seat if he couldn’t be there more regularly.

But Rubio, who has missed 34 percent of Senate votes dating back to Jan. 1, was quick with a more cutting response.

“I don’t remember you ever complaining about John McCain’s vote record; the only reason you’re doing it now is because we’re running for the same position and someone has convinced you that it’s going to help you,” Rubio said.

During McCain’s 2008 presidential run, the senator from Arizona missed 49 percent of votes from January 2007 through September 2007, as his primary campaign heated up.

Rand Paul needed to be on his game in the debate to gain some much-needed traction, in the view of many commentators. The senator from Kentucky spent some valuable speaking time pressing for an audit of the federal government, but nothing he said appeared to resonate with the Colorado crowd. His vow to stop Congress from increasing the federal debt limit drew silence.

The House of Representatives earlier in the day agreed on a measure to raise debt ceiling, ending a series of financial crises that have periodically shut down the government, most recently in 2013.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a former Fox News personality and radio talk-show host, appeared at times to be almost lobbying for a cabinet position from Trump, should the outsider manage to win the GOP nomination and the general election.

“I love Donald Trump, he’s a good man, I’m wearing a Trump tie tonight,” Huckabee said in response to a question from Harwood about whether he thought Trump has the “moral authority” needed to unite the country.

“Such a nasty question,” interjected Trump. “But thank you, governor.”

Contact Evan Lips at [email protected] or on Twitter at @evanmlips

Past debate roundups:

The Roundup: Democrats stick to high road in first debate

The Roundup: GOP debate No. 2

The Roundup: GOP debate No. 1