Marco Rubio was not at the center of the stage last night, but he emerged the clear winner. At Wednesday night's CNBC debate in Boulder, we heard more from Rubio than anyone else except Fiorina, per NPR's count, and the senator delivered several of the best lines of the night — including one notable exchange with fellow Floridian, Jeb Bush.
In this odd election cycle, there are two camps of Republicans — the outsiders, like Trump, Fiorina and Carson — who have been leading in the polls but who many still see as unlikely candidates in an actual election, and the establishment crowd. That last group, many thought, would be dominated by Jeb, but as he continues to flounder, Sen. Rubio looks to be stepping up.
So, it wasn't surprising when Bush went on the attack, pointing out an op-ed in a Florida paper that criticized Rubio for not showing up for Senate votes while he campaigns. But, Rubio seemed very well prepped for the question: "In 2004, John Kerry ran for president missing close to 60 to 70% of his votes... [and] The Sun-Sentinel endorsed him. In 2008, Barack Obama missed 60 or 70% of his votes, and the same newspaper endorsed him again," Rubio said. "So this is another example of the double standard that exists in this country between the mainstream media and the conservative movement."
Attacking the media was a popular tack all night. Rubio later called the mainstream media, "the ultimate super PAC" for Democrats, and it was the event's second most tweeted line. (Ted Cruz's attack on the CNBC moderators was number one.)
Rubio also spoke about his upbringing, taking an opportunity for a subtle jab at his opponents. "I didn't inherit any money. My dad was a bartender, my mother was a maid. They worked hard to provide us the chance at a better life," he said when asked about his personal finances.
When Becky Quick, one of the moderators, pointed out that he'd made a million dollars on his book deal, he quickly quipped that it was "out now in paperback" — dodging the criticism, and getting one of the night's bigger laughs.
And the loser? Trump, who's slid a little in the polls, failed to generate much attention, and Ben Carson, who came in the leader, was also his typical quiet self. The Bush campaign has been struggling, and supporters who were hoping for a turn-around last night are surely disappointed.
But the worst performance by far was probably from...CNBC. Before the debate even started (15 minutes late!) pundits and Twitter commentators were mocking the hosts' idle chatter, and it didn't get much better. Moderators often seemed out of control, with long periods of unintelligible shouting, and unclear of the rules (a candidate asked how exactly things worked more than three-quarters of the way through).
Rarely, if ever, were they on top of the facts enough to really take candidates to task. In one of the more bumbling moments, Quick read Trump something he'd said and asked him to comment. When Trump challenged her, asking her where she'd found the quote, she didn't know. "Where did I read that then?" she asked.
“You people write this stuff. I don’t know," Trump responded, to laughs.
To her credit, it turned out she'd read the quote somewhere quite reliable — on Trump's own website — and she was able to correct herself after a break. But, by that point, the chance to get an answer of real substance seemed to have passed.