The Republican contenders for the White House clashed on everything from fantasy football to tax reform in an unwieldy third debate that underscored why Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor, is struggling to convince voters to send him to the Oval Office.
Mr Bush delivered another lacklustre debate performance just days after it emerged that his fundraising juggernaut had slowed. He was overshadowed by Marco Rubio, the Cuban-American senator who easily countered Mr Bush’s attempt to criticise his vote attendance record in the Senate.
“Marco, when you signed up for this, this was a six-year term, and you should be showing up to work,” Mr Bush told his former protégé from Florida. “What is it, like a French work week?”
But Mr Rubio, the best orator in the Republican field, turned the tables on Mr Bush by accusing him of not using the same line of attack on John McCain in 2008 when the Arizona senator and then Republican nominee missed many Senate votes because of his presidential campaign.
“Jeb . . . I don’t remember you ever complaining about John McCain’s vote record,” Mr Rubio shot back. “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.”
Many political pundits agreed that Mr Bush had failed — as was the case in the first two Republican debates — to land blows on his rivals. Even Ana Navarro, a political operative from Florida who is a close friend of Mr Bush, conceded that his debate performances left a lot to be desired.
“The debate performances are having a huge influence,” said Ms Navarro. “It is probably the one component where he is not doing well.”
Speaking to CNN after the debate, Mr Bush looked deflated when he was told about Ms Navarro’s comment and asked why he was failing to erase concerns that he is unable to fight back against his rivals. “Ana, hang in there girl,” Mr Bush said. “It’s a long haul.”
“Jeb Bush did nothing much to help himself. He just isn’t very good in the clutch,” said Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia. “He came up short in his confrontation with Rubio, which Bush initiated. Rubio was more agile. And Jeb’s donors were looking for a spark that never flared.”
Mr Rubio was the most searched candidate on Google, while retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and Ted Cruz, the firebrand Texas senator, also attracted interest. Donald Trump, who has dominated past debates, had the third most air time but he trended low on Google compared with his rivals.
Mr Carson had the second-least amount of air time, speaking more than Mr Bush. But that was similar to his previous performances, which have not held him back from jumping to the top of the field for the first time. A CBS-New York Times survey released on Thursday found that he had the support of 26 per cent of Republicans, against 22 per cent for Mr Trump. Mr Carson also leads Mr Trump in Iowa, the first voting state, where the devout Christian is benefiting from a large evangelical population.
The audience was sympathetic when Mr Carson was asked about his endorsement for Mannatech, a maker of nutritional supplements that have been the target of civil lawsuits. He denied having any involvement and when pressed further about whether that spoke to his judgment, the audience booed.
“See. They know,” Mr Carson said in one of several moments in which the CNBC moderators were booed by the audience and chastised by the candidates. Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus tweeted that CNBC “should be ashamed of how this debate was handled”.
Mr Cruz had a good night by portraying himself as the adult of the debate. He repeatedly admonished the moderators and complimented his GOP rivals, which won cheers from the audience. “How about talking about the substantive issues people care about?” he asked.
In a Republican campaign that is favouring political outsiders, Mr Cruz also repeated his pitch that he is the one person in Washington who has taken on the GOP establishment.
Ohio Governor John Kasich tried to attract the spotlight by blasting Mr Trump and Mr Carson for pitching ideas that were “fantasies”. With that strategy, he was able to get more air time than in past debates but it remains unclear whether that will motivate voters. In previous debates, Mr Trump and Mr Carson appeared to perform poorly but then saw their numbers rise in the opinion polls.
“You judge a GOP debate by thinking about how the Republicans who will actually vote in the caucuses and primaries will react. I saw nothing that would dislodge Trump and Carson from the top positions,” said Mr Sabato.
Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina senator who has struggled to move above 1 per cent of support, had a good night in the debate for the four candidates in the bottom tier. Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, tweeted that he deserved to be on the main stage debate.
Mr Graham has pitched himself as the strongest candidate on national security and attacked President Barack Obama for being weak in the race of assertive moves by Russia and China. But despite having a great sense of humour, his attributes have so far failed to move GOP primary voters.
“The number two guy went to the Soviet Union on his honeymoon and I don’t think he ever came back,” Mr Graham said in a reference to Bernie Sanders, the self-declared socialist in the Democratic race that generated huge laughter.
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