Few could avoid the political crossfire Wednesday night at the third Republican presidential primary debate, where tensions flared among several candidates on stage – though perhaps the biggest clashes came between the candidates and the moderators.
This time, Donald Trump was hardly the only contender mixing it up on stage.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush went after fellow Floridian Marco Rubio early on for missing votes in the Senate. Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who has struggled in the polls, sharply criticized the race’s front-runners as unready and shopping “fantasy” policies to voters.
Yet a common target was the CNBC moderators themselves.
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz elicited a strong reaction when he scolded the moderators for their questions – which included one to Trump asking if he’s running a “comic book” campaign.
“The questions that have been asked so far in this debate illustrate why the American people don’t trust the media,” Cruz said. “This is not a cage match.”
Calling for a debate on issues, he cited a “contrast with the Democratic debate, where every fawning question from the media was, ‘Which of you is more handsome and why?’”
The debate did focus in part on fiscal issues, as candidates were challenged on their tax and other domestic plans. But even as the candidates sparred over those policies, they at times joined forces against the moderators when a curveball question was posed.
When former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee was asked if, as a preacher, he thinks Trump is someone with “moral authority,” Huckabee said: “I love Donald Trump — he is a good man. I’m wearing a Trump tie tonight. Get over that one.”
The crowd booed at the question while Trump added, “Such a nasty question.”
At one point, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie called moderator John Harwood “rude,” even by Garden State standards, after he interrupted him.
Taking a parting shot at the end of the debate, Trump touted his success at having “renegotiated” the debate from three hours-plus down to two hours, “so we can get the hell out of here.”
Harwood claimed the debate “was always going to be two hours,” but Trump held firm: “That is not right.”
After the debate ended, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said in a statement, “the performance by the CNBC moderators was extremely disappointing.”
Despite expectations that Trump would use Wednesday’s debate to go after retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson – who has overtaken Trump in Iowa polls and in the most recent national poll – the two did not argue Wednesday night, while Carson stuck to his low-key style.
Carson started the debate by pledging he would “not be engaging in awful things about my compatriots,” and ended the debate by thanking the other candidates for “being civil” and not “falling for the traps.”
But differences were on display, even if they were at times overshadowed by the spats with moderators.
Early on, Bush hammered Rubio for missing votes in Washington.
“What is it, like a French work week?” Bush asked, suggesting Rubio should go to work or “resign” – echoing the message of a Florida newspaper editorial published shortly before the debate.
Rubio, though, fired back, saying: “Somebody has convinced you that attacking me is going to help you.”
Bush trained his focus on Rubio as his campaign struggles in the polls, slipping in most surveys behind Rubio. But aside from the one-time attack on Rubio’s voting record, Bush at times seemed to struggle to elbow his way into the fray later in the debate. Rubio also dismissed the Florida editorial on his voting record, calling it evidence of media “bias.”
The Republican candidates sparred as well over their tax plans at the opening of the debate in Boulder, Colo.
Kasich leveled the most pointed criticism, after Trump defended his tax-cut plan and Carson defended his plan for a roughly 15 percent flat tax. Kasich called it “fantasy.”
“These plans would put us trillions and trillions of dollars in debt,” Kasich said. “Why don’t we just give a chicken in every pot?”
After he then appeared to take a swipe at Trump’s immigration plans, he added, “Folks, we gotta wake up. …. We cannot elect somebody that doesn’t know how to do the job.”
Trump, true to form, immediately shot back.
Saying Kasich initially vowed not to attack fellow Republicans, Trump said: “Then his poll numbers tanked. That’s why he’s on the end [of the stage].”
Carson defended his tax plan, saying it’s not “pie in the sky.” Cruz also pitched a new tax plan, calling it a 10 percent flat tax “where the numbers add up.”
Christie and Huckabee also argued over entitlements, with Christie urging him and others to tell the “truth” about these programs. He said Social Security will be “insolvent” in seven or eight years.
“The government has no business stealing even more from the people who paid [into the system],” Huckabee said.
When they could, the GOP candidates tried to refocus attention on their common foe – Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton.
After saying the Democrats have their own super PAC “called the mainstream media,” Rubio cited the positive coverage of Clinton’s testimony before the congressional Benghazi committee.
“It was the week she got exposed as a liar,” Rubio said, adding: “She has her super PAC helping her out, the American mainstream media.”
The candidates took the stage at a volatile time in the race. Not only does Trump now face a co-front-runner in Carson, but the pressure was heavy on middle-of-the-pack candidates like Bush and Carly Fiorina to shine as their polling slips.
Bush recently slashed his campaign budget, and earlier this week held a private meeting with donors to offer reassurances and lay out the new strategy – which appears to involve, in part, attacks on Rubio. And while Fiorina has turned in several strong debate performances, she faces the continuing challenge of translating that into sustained polling support.
She pointed to her business record several times Wednesday and ended the debate by touting her ability to take on Clinton.
“I may not be your dream candidate just yet, but I can assure you I’m Hillary Clinton’s worst nightmare,” she said. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, meanwhile, struggled for debate time on stage.
The CNBC-hosted debate followed an undercard debate with lower-polling candidates.