Step aside, Governor.

Photographer: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Rubio, Cruz and Kasich Snatch Debate Spotlight

Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before which he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal.
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In a raucous, free-wheeling Republican presidential debate, where facts were often a casualty, three second-tier candidates stood out: Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and John Kasich. 

The front-runners, Ben Carson and Donald Trump, were often out of the limelight, which may have have suited them just fine.  

Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor and once the putative favorite, immediately went after his onetime ally Rubio, condemning the senator for the votes he had missed while on the campaign trail. But Rubio shot back and got the better of the exchange.

Rubio and Cruz, the junior senator from Texas, scored big with attacks on the media, always a crowd-pleaser with the conservative base. Cruz initiated this criticism, and effectively echoed right-wing themes -- including attacks on Republican congressional leaders -- while Rubio effectively presented himself as offering optimism to a new generation. Both waffled when it came to some specifics.

The third Republican debate, in Boulder, Colorado, was hosted by the business cable network CNBC. Kasich offered the most substantive economic solutions, drawing on his record as governor of Ohio and as a former House Budget Committee chairman. He also assailed Trump's plan to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants and Carson's proposal for a flat 10 percent federal tax -- Carson raised it to 15 percent during the debate -- as an irresponsible deficit buster.

Trump occasionally reverted to his customary denunciation of other candidates -- Kasich was a target -- as was CNBC,  but the real estate magnate was less of a presence than in past debates. The expectation was that much of his fire would be aimed at Carson, a pediatric neurosurgeon and political novice, who has forged into the lead in the initial Iowa caucuses and one national poll. Those attacks never materialized.

Bush, who was one of the 10 candidates who spoke least Wednesday night, seemed to disappear for long stretches.

If the media was a loser of this forum, so were facts. Most of the candidates bragged about their tax cut plans, without conceding that all would explode the deficit. Carly Fiorina, who was fired as chief executive of Hewlett-Packard, insisted she did a great job at the company. Rubio made a misleading statement about an immigration bill he's sponsoring.

The debate intended to focus on major economic issues, yet trade and the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership were basically ignored as was any focus on jobs, the top concern of many American voters.

The first two Republican debates, on Fox News and CNN, drew unusually large audiences for forums so early in the election cycle. Wednesday night's audience was expected to be much smaller; CNBC has much less reach, and it was competing against the World Series.  

The first two debates affected the candidate's standings in subsequent polls. In the initial one, Trump was criticized for insults he hurled, but he rose in the surveys. Carson, who appeared low key, also took off. Bush and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, no longer a candidate, both plummeted.

Most of the buzz in the second debate, in September, centered on Fiorina, who took on Trump. She rose in the polls, but the gains proved ephemeral; she was back in the also-ran category before the Colorado forum.

Perhaps even more important than polls is the events' effect on big donors and potential supporters. After last month's debate, Fiorina's contributions soared while Kasich's slumped. With Wednesday's debate, donors' attention focused especially on Bush, whose supporters have been nervous about his lackluster campaign, and on Rubio, with several big contributors waiting to sign up if he and his campaign seemed mature and battle-ready enough to win.

The big money principally concerns the candidates' super-PACs, which have no restrictions on donations. A well-heeled super-PAC -- Bush and Cruz have had the most formidable ones so far -- can sustain a candidate in a protracted battle.

Last week, a focus group of Republicans was conducted in Indianapolis by Peter Hart, a Democratic poll taker, for the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School. Based on this and other forums and polls, Hart said Republican voters "have done a better job of figuring out what they are against rather than what they are for." Thus, the decidedly negative tone of the debates should come as no surprise.

While Trump is "the straw that stirs the drink," Hart noted, "the flaws outweigh the assets" when voters were asked to consider him as a president rather than a protest voice.

How much the public will contrast Trump's bombast with Carson's "calm demeanor," Hart concludes, will probably settle who the Republican front-runner is now -- at least until the next debate on Nov. 10.

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

To contact the author of this story:
Albert R. Hunt at ahunt1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net