By Margaret Carlson
Even the erstwhile front-runner Donald Trump didn't have fun at the third debate of Republican presidential candidates on Wednesday night. He used his summation to praise himself for at least setting limits to the boredom by pushing the network host to keep the event to two hours.
It would be hard to argue that he was wrong. It was as if the 10 Republican candidates had watched Democrats debate and were clumsily trying to show that they get down to substance, too. But, with the exception of Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who deftly found ways to remind everyone that he had and could govern, they couldn't quite pull it off. Sen. Ted Cruz tried to shift the blame on to the moderators, chastising them for lowering the tone, saying "This is not a cage match," even though at times it resembled one.
At one time, Jeb Bush was the designated grown-up, but these days he's lost his air of authority. More than any of his rivals, Bush needed to shine to revive his stumbling, cost-slashing campaign. But his performance was out of kilter and at times he looked lost.
Unlike the others, he didn't jump in to correct someone or steamroll the moderators; he didn't own the microphone even when he had it. His tax plan holds up better than some others but he made little effort to show he believed that. He treated a question about fantasy football with a light touch — saying he's winning 7-0 — but then he gave Gov. Chris Christie a big opening by calling for regulation. Christie got on his high horse, calling the whole line of questioning trivial, without mentioning that gambling is a protected industry in his state.
So many candidates needing a breakout moment, so little time. They were good on what they wouldn't do (Sen. Marco Rubio: "anything that's bad for my mother"). They were weaker on what they would do, except for their somewhat similar tax plans and their willingness to blame the government for any problem.
At the beginning, the candidates talked over each other. They seemed to run out of steam as the night wore on. Bush ended up speaking 6 minutes and 39 seconds. Only Rand Paul had less airtime.
Trump, too, vanished for long periods, jumping in to say that he had a permit to carry a concealed weapon and didn't like people to know when he was packing to preserve the element of surprise. Carson, who is edging Trump out of the front-runner slot, used his time to remind us that he is still the quietest person to ever run for president. He hedged on killing Medicare and tried to expand his tax plan beyond tithing. He may well win Iowa but he didn't win the night. Then again, he also admitted that he couldn't see himself in the Oval Office.
Carly Fiorina stood out for being grim. First, she acknowledged that she hadn't done enough smiling in the last debate and contorted her face into a knowingly sarcastic grin. Later, in a bizarre echo of Cruz's earlier comment about a cage match, she used her closing statement to sell her candidacy as an opportunity for voters to see her take on Hillary Clinton in a catfight.
Bush may have lost his chance to recover, but Rubio didn't miss the opportunity to stand his ground if not advance. The tensest moment came in the first half hour when Bush attacked his former protege for his poor attendance record in the Senate: "Marco, when you signed up for this, it was a six-year term. You should show up for work." Rubio was ready, firing off stats on every senator who'd ever run for president.
He scored again when Trump boasted of his ability to self-finance his campaign and questioned the morality of his rivals who relied on super PACs. Rubio came back with the evening's most memorable line: "Democrats have the ultimate super PAC. It's called the mainstream media." Christie had the second-best zinger, telling the moderator, John Harwood, that his question would be considered rude even in New Jersey.
Cruz looked better than he has so far in the campaign. He even tried to show a softer side, offering up tequila, famous Colorado brownies (containing marijuana presumably), and a ride home to anyone who might need one. He also tried to cover all the bases: He's anti-cronyism (tea party), suspicious of the Fed and in favor of a gold standard (libertarians), and vowed to defend Social Security (older white voters generally).
On the economy, which was supposed to dominate the night, there wasn't a lot of meat. The most Trump could muster about his plan after it was taken apart by the moderator was that a different CNBC commentator liked it.
The debate wasn't much of a boost for a Republican Party that desperately needs to prove it isn't in complete disarray after the House majority deposed one speaker and had to beg another to take the job. They didn't turn a page or show they were ready to take over the country. There's always next time.
Reach Margaret Carlson at firstname.lastname@example.org.