Ted Cruz, Rubio, Chris Christie and, to an extent, Trump took aim at how the race has been covered. Trump skewered some of the CNBC questions, even getting in digs at their fact-checking and even sparring over the network’s plans for the debate’s length.
“The Democrats have the ultimate SuperPAC: The mainstream media,” Rubio said at one point, complaining about the glowing coverage that Hillary Clinton got after the Benghazi hearing.
The debate took on a strange tone as moderators tried to challenge candidates with some of their own statements or, in the case of Ben Carson, his endorsement of Mannatech, a medical supplement company with a history of shaky marketing claims.
Attacking the media has become a familiar refrain in many GOP campaigns; on Wednesday, the challenge was who could find the most strident and creative ways of doing it. And while the CNBC moderators did ask substantive questions, you couldn’t help but wonder whether they also were subjected to candidates’ overall frustrations with the fixation on Trump and the tendency, as Cruz said, to make the highly watched debates a “cage match.” Even when an effort was made to get into Trump and Carson’s respective tax plans, for instance, the debate instead turned into a matchup between two candidates, like Trump and John Kasich.
Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus blasted CNBC for what he called the moderators’ “unfortunate questioning.”
“CNBC should be ashamed of how this debate was handled,” he said in a statement.
Ted Cruz vs. the Media
“The questions asked so far in this debate illustrate why the American people don’t trust the media,” declared Cruz, eliciting one of the biggest cheers of the evening. Cruz’s point was that the media was in the bag for the Democrats. He accused the media of asking Democrats “fawning” questions at the last debate, and said that the Democratic debate was like one “between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks and nobody watching at home believes any of the moderators has any intention in a Republican primary.” It didn’t matter that Cruz was actually being asked a substantive question about the debt ceiling; the outburst made its mark.
Rubio vs. the Media/Jeb Bush
Stinging from the Sun Sentinel’s call for him to resign for not showing up for a number of Senate votes as he waged his presidential campaign, Rubio turned the tables, pointing out how the same paper didn’t hold other Democratic candidates to the same standards. “It’s evidence of the bias in American media today,” he said.
What made Rubio stand out, however, was in part an exchange with Jeb Bush. Bush pointed out that Rubio was actually endorsed by the Sun Sentinel, adding, “This is a six-year term. You should be showing up for work.”
Rubio responded, “Somebody has convinced you that attacking me will help you.” The comment may not have answered why Rubio has missed those votes, but it did make Bush look a little desperate.
Trump vs. John Harwood
“I really had a lot of fun. I thought it was terrific,” Trump told CNBC just after the debate ended. You wouldn’t have thought about it as it was going on, as Trump at times took on CNBC’s moderators for their questioning.
When John Harwood asked him, “Is this the comic book version of a presidential campaign?” Trump responded, “That’s not a very nicely asked question.” In his closing remarks, Trump took on CNBC itself, taking credit for teaming up with Ben Carson to insist that the debate be limited to two hours, rather than three and a half, “so we can get the hell out of here.” Trump also cited the reported $250,000 per commercial spot the network was getting.
Still, Trump was more subdued in going after other candidates, delivering a debate performance where he was not the standout focus of attention. He even appeared to apologize when he admitted to using corporate bankruptcy laws four times.
“I’ve used the laws of the country to my benefit. I’m sorry.”
It once again showed that Trump’s best moments are when he has the stage to himself.
Chris Christie vs. Moderators
Christie also took on the moderators at one point, after a question was asked about the investigation into fantasy football and whether it should be regulated.
With ISIS and other world problems, “We’re talking about fantasy football? How about we get the government to do what they’re supposed to be doing?” Christie lamented. “Enough on fantasy football. Let people play. Who cares?”
He also chided Harwood for interrupting him as he tried to answer a question. “Even in New Jersey, what you are doing is rude.”
Rubio on his finances
After a question about how he manages his finances, Rubio drew laughs when he admitted that his wife once asked him why “someone named Sallie-Mae” was taking $1,000 out his paycheck each month. Rubio called the questions about how he’s handled his money “discredited attacks,” before steering the conversation to how he is the son of a bartender and a maid, now raising a family in the 21st century. It suited him well in contrasting his own life experience to that of some of his rivals, including Bush and Trump, while he also showed a penchant for self promotion: He got in a plug for his book.