With Hillary Clinton shoring up her front-runner status in the 2016 Democratic race, the pressure was on all of the GOP candidates to stand out in their third debate, which could prove critical in helping to winnow the large field.
Here are six takeaways from the Republican debate in Boulder, Colo.
Trump vs. Carson fizzles with no fireworks
Donald Trump pulled his punches when it came to Ben Carson, who is eclipsing him in recent polling out of Iowa, the first early voting state on the 2016 calendar.
Still, the real estate billionaire had a better night than the previous debate last month in Simi Valley. In one of his most animated moments, Trump bashed the role of super PACs, the outside spending groups pouring more money into the election than the campaigns.
Trump, the only candidate not relying on such groups, slammed them as “a disaster” and “scam” that’s “causing a lot of bad decisions to be made” by “good” people.
Attacking the media is a time-tested GOP winner
The candidates seemed to turn on the media questioners more than each other.
Several candidates trained their fire on the panel of moderators, including Trump, Rubio, Christie, Cruz and, at one point, even the soft-spoken Carson.
Cruz and Rubio delivered the sharpest attacks. Cruz said the panel’s questions “illustrate why the American people don’t trust the media,” drawing raucous audience cheers. Rubio said Democrats have “the ultimate super PAC, and it’s called the mainstream media.’’ He cited favorable press coverage of her Benghazi testimony in Congress last week.
Jeb came out swinging … and Rubio returned fire
Everybody said he had to do it. And he did.
With his campaign showing signs of financial distress, Jeb Bush was probably the candidate under the most pressure to deliver a strong performance.
He came out of the gate throwing punches, starting with Trump’s tax plan and also hitting Marco Rubio for his missed votes in the Senate.
“You should be showing up to work,’’ said Bush. “What is it, like a French work week?’’
But Rubio knew it was coming: “We’re running for the same position and someone has convinced you that attacking me is going to help you.’’
Early reviews of Bush’s performance Wednesday night were not kind, and it seems clear he likely didn’t reverse his slide.
Social Security is becoming a major GOP fault line
Opposing Social Security benefit cuts used to just be a Democrat thing.
The debate exposed a major divide in the GOP field. Chris Christie, Bush, Rand Paul and John Kasich cast themselves as realists who want to raise the retirement age and means test.
They clashed with Mike Huckabee and Trump who said there’s no need for benefit cuts. “You can’t do nothing,’’ said Paul. “That’s absurd.’’
Fiorina and Hillary: Get your popcorn
Carly Fiorina has taken the lead in attacking Hillary Clinton through the entire campaign, and Wednesday was no exception.
Among her attacks was probably the night’s most entertaining closing statement. She asked GOP voters to just admit it: You want to see a fight night between her and Hillary.
“I’m Hillary Clinton’s worst nightmare,’’ she said. “In your heart of hearts, you want to see a debate between Carly Fiorina and Hillary Clinton.’’
Undercards didn’t really break through, but Graham drew some laughs
The four undercards struggled to stand out in what may be one of their last chances to do so. The one with the best reviews was Lindsey Graham, who gave an impassioned plea to “make me the commander in chief.’’ He also drew laughter for defending his moderate record — including his support for immigration reform and climate change science — by rebuking the Democratic field.
“I’m tired of losing,’’ said Graham, raising his voice. “My God, look who we’re running against,’’ he said, singling out presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist from Vermont. “The number two guy went to the Soviet Union on his honeymoon and I don’t think he ever came back,’’ said Graham, delivering one of the night’s most memorable lines.