Cruz and Rubio Win. CNBC Loses.

Cruz and Rubio rise. And CNBC had a worse night than Bush did.

King of the zinger.

Photographer: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Senator Ted Cruz had his strongest moment of any debate so far when he went hard after the CNBC moderators tonight, pointing out how trivial their questions had been. The criticism was richly deserved.

Viewers will differ about the low point; my nominee is the question from moderator Becky Quick that was premised on the debunked statistic that women make 77 cents for every dollar a man makes. In a debate that was supposed to be about the economy, nobody asked a question about financial regulation.

The crummy questioning helped Dr. Ben Carson -- who is leading in several national polls and in Iowa -- escape deserved scrutiny. The moderator John Harwood asked about his ties to a nutritional-supplement company with “a long, checkered past.” Carson minimized that well-documented connection, and was able to get away with it because by that point the audience was convinced that the moderators were out to get the candidates.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie did well for himself by taking on the moderators too, ridiculing a question about the regulation of fantasy football. It was one of several missed opportunities for former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, to whom the question had been directed. He gave a meandering and mealy-mouthed reply.

And it wasn’t even the worst moment of his night. Bush (for whom my wife works) has been criticizing Senator Marco Rubio for missing votes in Congress. At the debate, he repeated that criticism and Rubio delivered a body-slam of a response. He didn’t actually defend his absenteeism, which even someone of Rubio’s formidable rhetorical skills can’t really do. Instead he said that Bush had backed candidates who missed a lot of votes before, and was only going after him because he's desperate. Bush needed a good debate after having to make staff cutbacks last week, and this wasn't it.

Two candidates are having trouble following up successful first acts. Carly Fiorina, the former head of Hewlett-Packard, did well, but her impact in this race has been entirely a function of spectacular performances in the last two debates. Between debates she has sagged. So merely doing well just isn’t good enough for her campaign. Donald Trump’s stunning rise, meanwhile, created a trap for him. He seems to have recognized that finding new ways to outrage people isn’t going to win him the nomination. But when he tries to do anything else, he becomes just another candidate -- and not an especially compelling one.

Before the debate, the conventional wisdom held that Trump was falling, Bush was in deep trouble, and Cruz and Rubio were rising. The debate will reinforce those impressions. And make Republicans wary about letting CNBC host any more debates.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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    Ramesh Ponnuru at

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    Timothy Lavin at

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