Sharpened attack lines and impatience infused the Republican presidential debate on Wednesday. Jeb Bush assailed his onetime protégé in Florida, Marco Rubio, over his Senate attendance record, while Gov. John Kasich of Ohio ripped into Donald Trump and Ben Carson, calling them unqualified for the White House.
The free-for-all of verbal assaults, including several critiques of the news media, reflected the new volatility in a race that Trump dominated for months. It now appears to be shifting in favor of candidates like Rubio and Carson as the first nominating contests near and voters start paying closer attention to the field.
Rubio and Carson faced the toughest questions but emerged largely unscathed, with Rubio in particular winning strong applause from the audience for his denunciation of negative campaigning. Kasich made a strong impression by showing new aggressiveness, but Trump, bent on recapturing his lead in polls, was more restrained in his mockery of his rivals than he had been in the previous two debates.
Rubio – an ally of Bush when he was governor of Florida and Rubio was the state House speaker – found himself under sharp attack from Bush over his reputation for chronic absenteeism in Washington. Rubio has missed more votes than any other senator this year. Bush, who has fared poorly with voters despite months of campaigning and heavy spending, blasted Rubio over his work ethic – a striking moment in the ongoing fraying of their friendship as they compete for support from moderate Republicans primary voters in Florida.
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“Marco, when you signed up for this, this was a six-year term – you should be showing up to work,” Bush said. “I mean, literally, the Senate, what is it, like a French workweek? You get like three days where you have to show up?”
Rubio hit back forcefully, noting that Bush has said he is modeling his campaign after Sen. John McCain’s in 2008, and that McCain missed many votes in the chamber during that run. And he attributed the criticism to the fact that Bush is struggling in the polls.
“Jeb, let me tell you, I don’t remember you ever complaining about John McCain’s vote record,” Rubio said. “The only reason 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.”
Bush receded after targeting Rubio, failing to turn in the sort of bravura performance his supporters had hoped for.
Even when Bush boasted light-heartedly about his undefeated fantasy football record this year, the line was hurled back in his face.
“We have $19 trillion in debt, we have people out of work, we have ISIS and al-Qaida attacking us, and we’re talking about fantasy football?” Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey demanded, turning his fire on Bush and the moderators, who had asked about regulation of the fantasy sports industry.
While the debate, broadcast by CNBC, was ostensibly dedicated to the economy, the fluid dynamics of the Republican race – with new polls showing Carson in the lead in Iowa and nationally, and Trump and especially Bush in decline – drove the candidates to seek moments that would emphasize their credibility and electability and resonate with conservative voters who are dissatisfied with Washington and politics as usual.
Several candidates faced tough questioning about their financial policies. Carson defended his plan to radically overhaul the tax system: He has said he would take inspiration from God and push for a “proportional tax system” based on tithing, in which people would pay the same percentage – close to 15 percent – of income in taxes, while deductions and loopholes would be eliminated.
When a moderator insisted that his tax plan would leave the government without significant revenue, Carson pushed back.
“That’s not true,” he said. “It works out very well.”
Kasich was quick to dispute Carson. “This is the fantasy that I talked about in the beginning,” he said of Carson’s tax ideas. “These plans would put us trillions and trillions of dollars in debt.”
Rubio seemed to get the better of Bush again when they discussed their economic plans in close succession. While Bush spoke wonkishly of “the code” and “regulatory cost,” Rubio cast the issue in personal terms, saying how tax reform would affect “the guy that does my dry cleaning.”
Rubio also faced questions about his own money – in his case, about his management of his personal finances: He has acknowledged mistakes like using personal credit cards to pay for his campaigns and a Florida Republican Party credit card to pay for a paving project at his home and for travel to a family reunion. He responded by implicitly swiping at Bush and Trump who benefited from being the scions of wealthy fathers.
“I didn’t inherit any money – my dad was a bartender and my mother was a maid,” Rubio said. “I’m not worried about my finances, I’m worried about the finances of everyday Americans who today are struggling in an economy that is not producing good-paying jobs.”
Again and again over the course of the night, Rubio repelled attacks from his opponents and difficult questions from the moderators with ready responses that turned the issue back on his interlocutors and prompted loud applause from the crowd.
He defended himself by attacking a Florida newspaper that had called for his resignation on Wednesday – and, more broadly, by castigating the news media, a favorite target of Republicans.
Sen. Ted Cruz, perhaps noting the ovation Rubio received from the audience when he attacked the media, picked up where the Florida senator left off and won his own round of booming applause for attacking the CNBC moderators for what he said was their focus on provoking fights rather than examining policy issues.
“This is not a cage match. And you look at the questions – Donald Trump, are you a comic book villain? Ben Carson, can you do math? John Kasich, will you insult 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?”
Cruz grew even testier when CNBC’s John Harwood, one of the moderators, said the senator had used up his allotted time on criticizing the media and would not be able to answer a policy question on the debt limit.
“You don’t want to hear the answer, John,” said Cruz. “You’re not interested in an answer?” (He was later allowed more time to answer the question.)
Rubio did not just appeal to the audience with his attacks on the media, he also did so by taking aim at Hillary Rodham Clinton, the leading Democratic presidential candidate.
“It was the week she got exposed as a liar,” said Rubio, referring to Clinton’s testimony Oct. 22 before a congressional panel investigating the 2012 attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
The partisan crowd did not just help Rubio, though. When Carson found himself facing difficult questions about his involvement with a nutritional supplement company, Mannatech, that has faced legal scrutiny, he dismissed it as “total propaganda.” After a moderator noted that Carson had appeared on the company’s homepage, Carson said that was done without his permission – and then was bolstered by a cascade of boos drowning out the line of questioning.
Carson also won applause when he parried a question about how, given his opposition to gay rights, he could serve on the board of a gay-friendly company, Costco. Carson said that opposing same-sex marriage did not make one a homophobe, decrying what he called a “PC culture” that he said is “destroying the nation.”
”It’s those people who are trying to divide us who are the enemies, and we need to make that clear,” he said to loud applause.