The Republican presidential race entered a new phase Wednesday night as the outsider candidates, who dominated the first two debates, were upstaged by several of their office-holding rivals — and by a budding controversy over the conduct of the third debate itself.
Ben Carson, Donald Trump and Carly Fiorina were all on hand and all had their moments. But the featured performer of the night was Marco Rubio, the senator from Florida who, at 44, is the youngest contestant in the field. Also acquitting themselves well were his Senate colleague, Ted Cruz of Texas, and Chris Christie, the oft-embattled governor of New Jersey.
Christie's much-maligned campaign had barely qualified for inclusion in this debate, but he seemed revivified by the questions and the interchange — especially the contretemps with the CNBC moderators.
"Even in New Jersey what you're doing would be called rude," said Christie, referring to CNBC moderator John Harwood.
Rubio became the debate's focus largely because of tough questions from the CNBC moderators that he deftly turned into recitations of his talking points. When other rivals tried to probe the same vulnerabilities, Rubio was quickly able to flip the polarity and deliver a put down in response.
Questioned about his missed votes in the Senate (the most of any senator this year) and his stated lack of interest in that position, Rubio noted how many votes had been missed by senators in both parties pursuing the presidency in the past.
When Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor sometimes described as Rubio's mentor, renewed the criticism ("What is it in the Senate, a French work week, where you only have to show up for three days?") Rubio wondered why Bush had never spoken out about such things before.
"The only reason why you're doing it now," Rubio charged, "is because we're running for the same position, and someone has convinced you that attacking me is going to help you."
Bush was not able to establish much momentum after that, finishing near the bottom of the list in speaking time. It was his third flat performance in the debate series to date, and the most damaging in its timing. His campaign had highlighted this evening, calling it Bush's chance to rebut suggestions he lacks real enthusiasm for this campaign. In recent weeks, he has seemed diffident and off-message at times in public appearances. He has laid off staff, as his standing in the polls has continued to decline.
Rubio, by stark contrast, was both sharp with a cutting remark and adept at the charming aside. Talking about a program for older people, he beamed boyishly, as he said, "I'd never vote for anything that would hurt my mom."
Rubio has been locked in the single digits in national polls and surveys in the early voting states as well. But many who watched the third debate expected that to change. And if the current front-runners should fade, leaving their voters up for grabs, the contest could become between Rubio and Cruz.
The night's peak energy point came when Cruz fielded a typically truculent question from one of the CNBC moderators and hit it out of the park.
"The questions that have been asked so far in this debate illustrate why the American people don't trust the media," Cruz said.
The debate audience, clearly a sympathetic crowd, roared its approval, nearly drowning out Cruz as he continued.
"This is not a cage match," Cruz added. "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 contrasted these questions with those at the Democratic debate, even though that event was put on by CNN. He said all the Democrats were asked was, "Which of you is more handsome and why?"
Several of the other Republican candidates tried to get in on the crowd's appetite for media criticism before the evening was over. Their staffs were also complaining about the in-your-face tone of the CNBC crew. After the debate, Carson's campaign manager talked about renegotiating the terms of the remaining debates.
Reince Priebus, the GOP national chairman who took control of the debates this year and made deals with the various news outlets, also expressed dismay after the debate and said changes would be made to future formats.
Meanwhile, the man who has been proud of leading in polls among Republicans since July, Donald Trump, held his own Wednesday night despite a disappointing slide to No. 2 in some of the most recent tests both nationally and in Iowa. Trump delivered his stock lines about taxes, immigration and badly negotiated deals on trade and foreign relations. But the Trump presence was a measure less effervescent than on the stump or in earlier debates.
The new leader in some polls, Carson, the retired neurosurgeon, reprised his role as the quiet man on stage. He had less speaking time than almost any other candidate, and when he had the spotlight, he did little to hold it. Asked for a weakness, he cited his failure to think of himself as presidential material ("until hundreds of thousands of people began to tell me that I needed to do it"). He also seemed unsure of his footing at times when describing his tax rate plan and other economic matters.
But Carson, too, took the opportunity to push back on the CNBC journalists. When Carl Quintanilla asked about Carson's association with a controversial maker of nutritional supplements, Carson flatly denied any involvement and called the assertion "pure propaganda."
In fact, Carson starred in a promotional video for the company and may face more questions about his statement in the days ahead. But when Quintanilla tried to follow up, the crowd booed and Carson took the out: "See," he said, "they know."
Carly Fiorina, regarded by many as the standout performer in the Sept. 16 debate, managed to get more speaking time this time than any of her rivals — in part, by resisting the moderators. But while she came across as self-assured and offered one of her best defenses of leadership at Hewlett-Packard a decade ago, Fiorina did not have a memorable exchange with Trump or any of the candidates.
The other four candidates who took part may have experienced more frustration than fulfillment. Rand Paul, a senator from Kentucky, was one of the three candidates with fewest minutes of airtime. His efforts to climb into the tax debate were largely unsuccessful. Mike Huckabee had his usual moments of folksy humor but few scoring opportunities.
The man who had the highest hopes for this round may have been John Kasich, the governor of Ohio who has tried to go after the non-politician front-runners, attacking the unrealistic promises of lower taxes and an end to illegal immigration. Kasich kicked off the evening with thinly veiled criticisms of Carson and Trump as potential occupants of the Oval Office.
"My great concern is that we are on the verge, perhaps, of picking someone who cannot do this job," he charged, adding, "We need somebody who can lead."
But Trump promptly fired back with a withering rebuttal about Kasich's Ohio success being a windfall from oil produced by fracking, and about Kasich's partnership at Lehman Brothers shortly before that Wall Street firm collapsed and set off the worst of the 2008 financial panic.
Kasich had a comeback, but his offensive came up short.