At Third GOP Debate, Trump, Bush and CNBC Take Fire

Republican U.S. presidential candidate Ben Carson, center, speaks as businessman Donald Trump, left, and former HP CEO Carly Fiorina listen at the 2016 U.S. Republican debate held by CNBC in Boulder, Colorado, on Wednesday. Rick Wilking/Reuters

It's a purple state and very much in play, and so tonight Republicans ventured into Colorado, specifically Boulder, the state's liberal heart, to talk about lowering taxes, shrinking government and growing the economy.

Going in, all eyes were on Ben Carson, the retired pediatric neurosurgeon who has captivated the Republican base and is currently leading the race, according to the latest CBS/New York Times poll. Would he maintain his soporific tone now that he'd slipped into the (margin-of-error) lead ahead of Donald Trump and would surely be in the real estate mogul's sights? Carson did maintain that tone, and in so doing was nearly drowned out by tense and angry monologues. His total speaking time was second to last, just ahead of Jeb Bush, according to the Times.

The two front-runners didn't dominate a forum that frequently got testy and devolved into attacks on the moderators. Ohio Governor John Kasich set the tone when, twitching with tension, he ignored the first question—each candidate had 30 seconds to describe his or her biggest weakness—and instead used his opener to go after his competitors' "fantasy" ideas: Trump's Mexican wall and Carson's entitlement reform plans.

Throughout, Carson maintained his sphinx-like stillness amidst the din, as candidates accused the CNBC moderators of being biased. In a rare moment of attention, Carson explained that his tithing-style tax plan was actually more complex than a flat 10 percent across the board and said it would amount to a 15 percent tax on individuals, corporations and capital gains.

It was not a stellar night for Trump either. He defended his border wall against the charge that it was a mere fantasy, pointing out that it would have "a big door in the middle" to receive legal immigrants, and again assured listeners that he—unlike a regular politician—would be able to persuade Mexico to pay for it.

When asked about his company's four Atlantic City bankruptcies, Trump reiterated, as he has in previous debates, that they were not mistakes but sound business strategy. He contended that magnates he declined to name also "use the Chapter laws" for sound business purposes. Trump claimed to have amassed a $10 billion net worth, a number that Forbes has put at $4.5 billion. And he surprised listeners by saying that he sometimes carries a registered gun.

Florida Senator Marco Rubio was probably the night's winner. Amid the twitchier second-tier candidates and the deeply idiosyncratic front-runners, he came across as sensible, crisp and sometimes passionate. Rubio defended himself against a Florida Sun-Sentinel's op-ed published Wednesday that called on him to resign for missing so many Senate votes. He also contended that Kerry and Obama had both missed 60 to 70 percent of Senate votes when they campaigned. "This is an example of the double standard in the media in the country," he said.

Fellow Floridian former Governor Jeb Bush reprised the lackluster performance he turned in at the last two debates and had the least amount of speaking time. His most spontaneous moment was jumping in to second the Sentinel's criticism of Rubio. "You should be showing up," Bush said. "You can campaign...or just resign and let someone else do your job."

Ted Cruz, asked about the debt limit, used up his time in that question unleashing a tirade against the moderators for fomenting discord on stage and not asking substantive questions.

"The questions that have been asked this far…illustrate why the American people don't trust the media," he said. To raucous applause from the audience, Cruz contrasted the sharp questions in the Boulder debate with the "fawning" questions CNN posed to Democratic candidates earlier this month. "Let me be clear: The men and women on this stage have more ideas and common sense...than anyone on the Democratic stage," Cruz said. "That debate was between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks," he said, referring to competing factions during the Russian Revolution.

Rubio put up a spirited defense of himself too. Asked whether he had the maturity to run the government given questions about his personal finances, he snapped: "You've just listed a litany of discredited attacks from Democrats and my political opponents, and I'm not going to waste 60 seconds detailing them all."

Fiorina, who grabbed the most airtime, blamed big government for crony capitalism, Big Pharma and big banks. "This is how socialism starts," she said. "The big and powerful use big and powerful government to their benefit.... Meanwhile, small businesses are getting crushed. Big government favors the wealthy and crushes the small and powerless."

Fiorina also repeated a claim she made in a Wall Street Journal op-ed this week that under Barack Obama, 92 percent of lost jobs were jobs held by women. Romney made the same charge in 2012, and it has since been debunked by The Washington Post and other fact-checkers, but the CNBC moderators didn't challenge her.

Feisty CNBC Mad Money host Jim Cramer lobbed a few questions, loudly. He asked Carson whether government should be protecting consumers from drug companies' price gouging. Carson averred that "there is no question drug companies go overboard" but contended the solution was to reduce regulation, not increase it. "The government isn't supposed to be in our lives," he said.

Toward the end, the candidates all responded to a question about Medicare. Carson said individuals were better able to care for themselves than "letting the government use its so-called intellect." Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee suggested Medicare could be fixed by curing diseases like cancer and Alzheimer's. Rubio said his reforms would be aimed at future generations. "Nothing has to change for this generation," he said. "My mother's on Medicare. I am against anything that's bad for my mother. We are talking about reforms for people like me and Senator Cruz, who are years away from retirement and have time to plan."

Earlier in the evening, the undercard debate—where no one had much to lose—was more congenial. If the word shrink had been used for shots in a drinking game, viewers would have been plastered before the first 10 minutes, as the GOP's 1 percenters each predictably vowed to diminish government.

Lindsay Graham was the anointed winner, mostly because he got off a few funny lines. Clinton "thought she was broke" when she and her husband had made a million dollars, he said, and Sanders "honeymooned in the Soviet Union and never came back." Graham concluded with genuine frustration: "I'm sick of losing! If we can't beat these people, who the hell can we beat?"

CNBC commentators also seemed to anoint Graham the winner. "Lindsay ate his Wheaties! He had more energy than I've ever seen in him," said Republican commentator Sarah Fegan.

The undercard debate will be remembered, if at all, as the beer, iPhone and NFL debate, with candidates responding to a lightning round of softballs about Coors beer, their favorite apps and whether the day after the Super Bowl should be a national holiday.

As for the big kids' table, as the weather cools and nights grow long, Iowans and New Hampshirites are now paying attention. For those who watched, this third debate did nothing for Bush, lifted Rubio and Cruz, and left Carson and Trump about where they were when they flew into the Rocky Mountain State.