GOP debate analysis: Rubio earns top spot

Republican presidential candidates showed up on Wednesday to yet another audition in front of millions of Americans as they were supposed to debate each other and present their vision for the future in constricted soundbites for the third GOP debate on CNBC.

But instead of being able to address their vision and draw a contrast with one another, the candidates were grilled and skewed by the moderators. But it came back to haunt CNBC as the candidates and the audience fought back aggressively.

In the remaining time they had to answer questions or address policy issues, there were two candidates who stood out, dominated the conversation and earned positive marks: Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz.

Going into the debate, Rubio’s stakes were high. The eyes of potential backers – such as Sheldon Adelson and Paul Singer – were glued to the TV screen not only to examine his performance and answers on the issues of the day but to determine whether the moment has come to put their faith in his candidacy as a viable choice.

Rubio has done pretty well in previous debates. On TV and in public speeches, the Florida Senator inspires. He’s articulate, measured, but more importantly he’s appealing. And in recent months, Rubio has been climbing the ladder in public opinion polls and all of the post-debate polls. But somehow, despite his rise in the polls, situating himself in the top 5 spots in every single national and state poll, he hasn’t been able to break out. His fundraising numbers are far from impressing, and despite missing a substantial amount of time casting votes in the Senate, he hasn’t been seen too often in the early primary states, and the amount of time spending in attending fundraisers and meeting bundlers doesn’t seem to be too productive.

Politico reported Tuesday that Singer, who considers Rubio as his favorite, is still wondering if he can create a big-time national campaign and succeed in building a formidable political operation to compete or even win the early primary states. Adelson, too, is closing in on Rubio but was said to be waiting for tonight’s debate to make a final and unregrettable decision

Rubio’s hawkish views on foreign policy issues are a plus for him in courting the heavy Jewish Republican donors. But it hasn’t helped him, so far, to bite into Ted Cruz’s base.

That changed on Wednesday night. Rubio stood his ground to the questions hurled at him, stuck to his basic campaign theme, but more importantly, threw back a punch to his main rival Jeb Bush as the two sparred at the beginning of the two-hour debate.

When he was challenged for skipping more votes than any senator to run for president, Rubio made a fair comparison to previous senators running for president, including President Barack Obama and John Kerry. “This is another example of the double standard that exists in this country between the mainstream media and the conservative movement,” he said.

Bush, looking for a breakout moment against the charismatic Senator from Florida, countered that argument: “Marco, when you signed up for this, this was a six-year term, and you should be showing up to work,” he said.” I mean, literally, the Senate — what is it, like a French work week? You get, like, three days where you have to show up? You can campaign, or just resign and let someone else take the job.”

But Rubio threw the Romney kitchen sink right at Jeb. “Over the last few weeks, I’ve listened to Jeb as he walked around the country and said that you’re modeling your campaign after John McCain, that you’re going to launch a furious comeback the way he did, by fighting hard in New Hampshire and places like that, carrying your own bag at the airport. You know how many votes John McCain missed when he was carrying out that furious comeback that you’re now modeling after?,” he asked the former Republican frontrunner. “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 also got positive marks for attacking the mainstream media, which is always a plus in the Republican primary.

If I were a fly on the wall in the Adelson living room tonight, I would’ve heard Sheldon telling his wife Miriam that the deal is closed, he has it. Rubio might have earned the Vegas casino mogul’s support, even though foreign policy wasn’t even mentioned once during the entire debate, for hitting a grand slam in a game he’s pitching perfect against the presumptive Democratic nominee.

Christie also had his moments. When the moderator asked Bush about the government getting involved in fantasy football, the New Jersey Governor chimed in: “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? Can we stop? Seriously, how about this? How about we get the government to do what they are supposed to be doing, secure our borders, protect our people and support American values and American families.”

Rand Paul, though wearing the best tie, failed to score a breakout moment just for the fact that he was given less time to speak, and the substantive answers he gave were diluted by the candidates continued clashes with the moderators.

Just like the Democratic debate early this month, Israel was not mentioned once during the debate. In fact, the fight against ISIS and the Iran nuclear deal was only mentioned by Trump and Christie during indirect answers on other issues.

Ohio Governor John Kasich, who had a good performance, quoted the Talmud in his closing remarks: “And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:9)

This also marked the first time in over three months that the frontrunner Donald Trump, already being challenged by Ben Carson for the first spot, failed to dominate the conversation and despite standing center stage, he was not the center of the discussion and was mostly ignored by the other candidates on the stage.

Other than the ten candidates standing on the stage, Senator Lindsey Graham also had a great night in the undercard debate aired on CNBC at 6:00 pm. His performance earned him a high five by the guy who became the nominee four years ago: former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. “After hearing @LindseyGrahamSC talk foreign policy tonight, it’s clear he belongs on the big stage,’ Romney tweeted.

Indeed, Graham with his knowledge of domestic and international affairs and sense of humor belonged on the main stage on Wednesday.

The 14 GOP hopefuls will get another opportunity to earn some support next month. But to sum up tonight’s debate, Jeb Bush failed to save his flailing campaign and he failed big in picking a fight with Rubio. Christie, who does well on stage, will likely benefit from Bush’s downfall in the short term. But most importantly, Rubio, as mentioned above, proved he’s ready to take it to top-tier by using to maximum his strength at the podium. Similarly, Cruz shined in the moments he was given the mic.

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