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Lousy Moderators Help Second-Tier GOP Candidates Break Out At CNBC Debate

Just about every pre-debate warm-up analysis predicted it would be a make-or-break debate for the second-tier Republican candidates… and it was.

The conventional wisdom was right on the nose in this case. It was a huge night for Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Carly Fiorina, and Chris Christie.

All four were aided enormously by the horrible amateur-hour of CNBC’s moderators, who should be looking for new jobs after their ridiculous performance, spewing Democrat National Committee talking points disguised as questions and talking over the candidates. This wasn’t a debate for them–it was tryouts for Hillary Clinton’s press secretary.

Becky Quick used a discredited DNC talking point about women’s wages that she knows is a lie. John Harwood doubled down, and then doubled down again in post-debate spin sessions, with a false attack on Marco Rubio’s tax plan that he knows is a lie – a lie he’s actually been forced to correct in the past. He’ll be forced to correct himself again in the coming days, but he’s a political operator, not a newsman. He knew the damage would be done by dumping his load of partisan garbage during the big show, and fewer people would hear his corrections and apologies later in the week.

There is no excuse for this clumsy partisanship, not from people who style themselves as “reporters” at a “news” network. It should be a career-ending night for both of them.

But it was a star-making night for those second-tier GOP candidates, who connected with the audience as they repeatedly defeated the DNC-CNBC moderators, to the thunderous cheers of the audience. The mainstream media sometimes forgets how much credibility its biases have cost it with the American people, especially after it pulled out all the stops to get Barack Obama elected and re-elected.

Reporters forget how suspicious everyone outside of hardcore Democrat partisans is of them now, when so many media personalities are well-known to be in the Clintons’ social and professional orbit. They got a reminder last night, and the shockwaves are spreading far beyond conservative punditry and Republican voters.

Ted Cruz, of course, generated the most buzz by slamming the media through the back wall of the auditorium, tapping his remarkably sharp memory to throw their silly gotcha questions right back in their faces, verbatim. (Yes, it’s true that he used a question about the debt-ceiling deal to do it, and didn’t answer the actual question, but few in the nationwide audience are going to hold that against him… especially since the clumsy moderators needled him about not addressing the debt deal, and then shouted him down when he tried to do so. It was one of many times the amateur CNBC team flubbed the few partisan points it managed to score.)

Rubio delivered one of the most memorable lines of the night, during a discussion of campaign financing: “You know, the Democrats have the ultimate Super PAC, it’s called the mainstream media.” His example of the media celebrating Hillary Clinton’s falsehoods on Benghazi was right on the money, and highly resonant with the people our media culture can barely see from within their bubbles.

Christie had a great moment when he lost patience with moderator John Harwood for talking over him, and snapped, “John, do you want me to answer, or do you want to answer? Because I got to tell you the truth, even in New Jersey, what you’re doing is called rude.”

This exchange highlighted something liberals who are foolishly attempting to defend the CNBC clown show ought to keep in mind: one of the biggest problems with their approach was how they kept interrupting the candidates, talking over them, and even shouting them down. Viewers tuned in to hear the candidates talk, not watch the moderators get into arguments with them. Presidential debates are not super-sized editions of the Sunday talk shows.

Leaving the moderators aside, each of these candidates did exactly what they needed to do on Wednesday night. Rubio made his bid for a top-tier position, aided enormously by Jeb Bush’s ill-conceived and poorly executed attack on his voting record. Rubio came out of that exchange looking more important than Bush. It was also an unwelcome demonstration that Bush is exceptionally bad at thinking on his feet and adjusting his strategy to the flow of debate-stage battle. He started hammering Rubio after the audience had already applauded Rubio’s response to the question of his missed Senate votes. There was no pitch to swing at, but Bush swung anyway.

Cruz made his big move, after a few surprisingly quiet debates.

He went out of his way to present himself as a consensus-builder, praising his rivals and pronouncing himself in agreement with their best ideas. Cruz clearly knows one of the biggest obstacles facing a maverick outsider is the suspicion that he wouldn’t be able to work with his own caucus, never mind pull some Democrats across the aisle, to get legislation passed. He took deliberate steps to address that suspicion.

Christie literally looked America square in the eyes and delivered his sales pitch. It might be coming too late for a candidate on the bubble, but he perfected his campaign style during this debate: if you’re tired of X, and you want Y, vote for Chris Christie. He did the second-best job of the night presenting himself as the candidate best suited to handle Hillary Clinton on the debate stage.

Top honors on that score go to Carly Fiorina, whose campaign was pumping out social media messages with her “in your heart, you know you want to see me debate Hillary Clinton” line before she left the stage.

Fiorina has been curiously quiet after her big performance in the second debate. She gave a few solid interviews immediately afterward, then disappeared, leaving her critics to control her campaign narrative by pounding on her tenure as Hewlett-Packard CEO. Perhaps she thought she would appear too defensive, too preoccupied with fending off criticism, if she tried to address the issue in a string of smaller interviews and press conferences. She wouldn’t want people thinking that every time they see her, she’s talking about business decisions she made decades ago.

Has Fiorina simply been unable to attract media coverage to keep herself front-and-center, or was she deliberately keeping a low profile, until she had a national audience and could regain control of the narrative about her private-sector career? If the latter, she did a good job of it Wednesday night, along with a winning moment when she joked about needing to smile more, and demonstrated that she does indeed have a very nice smile.

It was a very good night for Rubio, Cruz, Fiorina, and Christie. Let us see how they play the cards they have been dealt.

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