At GOP debate, candidates turn on their questioners

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush went after his protege-turned-rival, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, for missing Senate votes to campaign for president. But the most acrimonious exchanges at the third Republican debate Wednesday debate were between the Republican candidates and the CNBC panelists and what Donald Trump described as their “nasty and ridiculous questions.”

“The questions that have been asked so far in this debate illustrate why the American people don’t trust the media,” said U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who won a tremendous ovation from the live audience at the University of Colorado in Boulder for corralling the grievances of his fellow candidates into a sustained, well-delivered attack on the interrogators from CNBC, the cable channel that broadcast the debate.

“This is not a cage match, and if you look at the questions: `Donald Trump, are you a comic book villain?’ `Ben Carson, can you do math?’ `John Kasich, will you insult the two people over here?’ `Marco Rubio, why don’t you resign?’ `Jeb Bush, why have your numbers fallen?’”  Cruz said.

“How about talking about the substantive issues people care about? The contrast with the Democratic debate, where every fawning question from the media was, `Which of you is more handsome and wise?'” Cruz continued. “And let me be clear: The men and women on this stage have more ideas, more experience, more common sense than every participant in the Democratic debate. That debate reflected a debate between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks. And nobody watching at home believes that any of the moderators have any intention of voting at a Republican primary.”

Cruz’s attack struck a powerful nerve with the party faithful, in the live audience, on social media and in Frank Luntz’s focus group, where the renowned Republican pollster and consultant monitors second-by-second responses to every line delivered in the debate.

“Ted Cruz’s focus group dials hits 98 with his attack on media bias,” Luntz tweeted. “That’s the highest score we’ve ever measured. EVER.”

Even before the debate had ended, the Cruz campaign was raising money online with the message:  “Tell the Media: Stop the Attacks.”

“I don’t know who will win but there’s widespread agreement that CNBC lost tonight,” tweeted Amanda Carpenter, Cruz’s former communications director.

There is no richer vein in Republican politics than animus toward what conservatives perceive to be a powerful left-wing, Democratic bias in the so-called mainstream media.

In January 2012, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich injected a sharp shot of adrenaline into his campaign for president by rebuking CNN’s John King at a Republican presidential debate for asking him a question about his second ex-wife’s allegation that he suggested that she accept his affairs as part of their marriage.

“I think the destructive, vicious, negative nature of much of the news media makes it harder to govern this country, harder to attract decent people to run for public office,” Gingrich said to thunderous applause at the Charleston, S.C., debate. “And I am appalled that you would begin a presidential debate on a topic like that.”

“I am tired of the elite media protecting Barack Obama by attacking Republicans,” Gingrich said.

“The Democrats have the ultimate super PAC; it’s called the mainstream media,” Rubio said Wednesday.

“Last week Hillary Clinton went before a committee. She admitted she had sent emails to her family, saying, `Hey, this attack on Benghazi was caused by Al-Qaeda-like elements.’ She spent over a week telling the families of those victims and the American people that it was because of the video, and yet the mainstream media is going around saying it was the greatest week in Hillary Clinton’s campaign. It was the week she got exposed as a liar.”

“Tonight saw a revival of the Gingrich 2012 strategy: win applause from a conservative audience by attacking the mainstream press,” said Texas Christian University political scientist Adam Schiffer. “Their obsession with the `liberal media,’ while predictable and dependable as an applause line, completely misses the point. The moderators were indeed awful – but not because of ideology.”

“Instead,” Schiffer said, “they couldn’t manage the clock or the candidates, they were inconsistent with the questioning, and they tried too hard to inject themselves into the story with trivial gotcha questions. But sometimes confrontation is the journalistically responsible approach. For example, Ben Carson’s tax plan simply doesn’t add up. That’s something voters need to know, and who else will tell them?”

Trump, Carson, a retired neurosurgeon who is competing with Trump for front-runner status in the polls,  New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Rubio all took turns taking whacks at the CNBC questioners and media bias more generally.

When panelist Carl Quintanilla asked Bush a question about regulating gambling on fantasy sports, Christie jumped in.

“Carl, are we really talking about getting the government involved in fantasy football?” Christie said. “Wait a second. We have $19 trillion in debt, we have people out of work, we have ISIS and Al-Qaeda attacking us, and we’re talking about fantasy football?”

Winning cheers, Christie continued, “How about this? How about we get the government to do what they’re supposed to be doing: Secure our borders, protect our people, and support American values and American families. Enough on fantasy football. Let people play. Who cares?”

And when John Harwood, another of the questioners, interrupted as Christie was answering another question, Christie objected,  “No, John, do you want me to answer, or do you want to answer? Because I’ve got to tell you the truth. Even in New Jersey, what you’re doing is called rude.”

Marco Rubio deflects Jeb Bush's criticism of Rubio's Senate absences.

Marco Rubio deflects Jeb Bush’s criticism of Rubio’s Senate absences.

And it appeared that Rubio, who was a far more dominant presence Wednesday night than at the first two debates, got the better of Bush, who sided with Rubio’s media critics in suggesting that he was not living up to his responsibilities as U.S. senator by missing so many votes.

The question to Rubio from Quintanilla cited an editorial from the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, calling on Rubio to resign his Senate seat because he is spending so little time there.

“You’ve been a young man in a hurry ever since you won your first election for your 20s,” Quintanilla said. “Now, you’re skipping more votes than any senator to run for president. Why not slow down, get a few more things done first, or at least finish what you start?”

“Well, that’s an interesting question,” Rubio replied. “That’s exactly what the Republican establishment says, too. Why don’t you wait in line. Wait for what? This country is running out of time. We can’t afford to have another four years like the last eight years.”

Noting that John Kerry, John McCain and Barack Obama all missed a lot of Senate votes in their successful campaigns for their party’s presidential nomination, Rubio said, “So, this is another example of the double standard that exists in this country, between the mainstream media and the conservative movement.”

But Bush, who now finds his campaign competing head to head in polls with Rubio in the middle ranks of the field, and competing for the same donor dollars, joined in the attack on Rubio, who was standing right next to him.

“I’m a constituent of the senator, and I helped him, and I expected that he would do constituent service, which means that he shows up to work,” Bush said. “Marco, when you signed up for this, this was a six-year term, and you should be showing up to work. Literally, the Senate, what it is like a French work week? You get like three days when you have to show up?”

Rubio shot back that Bush was modeling his comeback candidacy on McCain’s in 2008, which involved a lot of missed Senate votes.

“Do you know how many votes John McCain missed?” he asked. “I don’t remember you ever complaining about John McCain’s vote record.”

“The only reason why you’re doing it now is because we’re running for the same position and someone has convinced you that attacking me is going to help you,” Rubio said. “Here’s the bottom line: my campaign is about the future of America. It’s not going to be about attacking anyone else on this stage.”

“The key moment was the confrontation between Rubio and Bush,” said Claremont-McKenna College political scientist John Pitney. “Rubio won. Bush lost. And it’s a double win for Rubio because he will inherit Bush’s support.”

“Jeb Bush did not help his cause tonight,” said Joshua Scacco, an expert on political communication at Purdue University. “His line of attack against Marco Rubio’s attendance record was anticipated by the Florida senator and rebutted in a way that made Rubio look stronger. Bush had to distinguish himself, particularly for donors wary of a looming multi-million dollar failure. The donors may be looking elsewhere after tonight.”

“Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz were at their best when they went after the news media, Scacco said.  “CNBC did not help their cause by allowing candidates to go over time, apologizing for particular lines of questioning, or allowing the candidates to talk over one another.”

“Marco Rubio hit several home runs: he was polished, if not slightly rehearsed,” said University of Houston political scientist Brandon Rottinghaus. “Ted Cruz attacked the media with sensible outrage, given the context.”

David Redlawsk, a Rutgers University political scientist who is a fellow this semester at Drake University in Iowa, rated both CNBC and Bush as losers in the debate.

“First, the biggest loser was CNBC,” Redlawsk said. “But it is not entirely the moderators’ fault. Ten candidates on stage is too many when the stakes are getting as high as they are. Randomly splitting the 14 into two equal-sized debates seems to make more sense.”

“Second,” he said, “Jeb Bush just did not give any real sense of why people should continue to consider him.”

 

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