The CNBC debate started late and lame, and then the punches started flying.
Several candidates had very strong outings, but I must say, some of the moderators’ questions came off as downright snide, bordering on insults. One question after another was just loaded, worded to denigrate the candidates.
No wonder Ted Cruz got a big cheer from the Boulder audience when he attacked the questioners and called the debate a case study in mainstream media bias.
I’m in favor of tough and provocative questions. The Fox moderators asked tough questions. CNN’s Anderson Cooper asked tough questions. The CNBC moderators sounded condescending.
This surprised me. The network has good journalists. I thought if anything the focus on the economy might slide into dullness. But its team played into the hands of those who think the media are unfair to Republicans.
It got so bad that “Mad Money” madman Jim Cramer and Tea Party inspiration Rick Santelli sounded restrained by comparison.
After a throwaway query about biggest weaknesses, John Harwood, who also writes for the New York Times, asked Donald Trump if he wasn’t running a “comic-book version” of a campaign. Trump pivoted away from the “not very nice” question, but Harwood hammered him again: His tax plan, according to experts, had as much chance of working as The Donald flying away from the podium.
Carl Quintanilla was dismissive toward Marco Rubio by calling him a “young man in a hurry.” This was part of a long question about why he was missing many Senate votes, that ended with a preachy tone why he didn’t wait in line for his turn to run for president. Really?
Rubio punched back by saying the GOP establishment wanted him to wait, and denouncing Florida’s Sun-Sentinel (which called on him to vote more or resign) for liberal bias, since the paper hadn’t made a similar call when Democrat Bob Graham ran in 2004.
The exchange provided Jeb Bush with his one big moment in the debate, a chance to smack his fellow Floridian for supposedly not showing up for work. But Rubio effectively responded by saying someone must have convinced the former governor he had to attack Rubio.
Becky Quick asked Carly Fiorina a negative question about getting fired at Hewlett-Packard, which is fair, but rather than breaking new ground, she simply asked why the stock had plunged during her tenure. Fiorina said the Nasdaq had dropped 80 percent.
Quintanilla actually got booed during a series of questions to Ben Carson about his connection to a controversial medical supplement maker. When the doctor said the firm had put his picture on its home page without his permission, Quintanilla shot back: “Does that not speak to your vetting process or judgment in any way?” The audience unloaded.
Quick seemed befuddled when Trump challenged the premise of her question on immigration.
“Where did I read this and come up with this?” she asked.
“I don’t know, you people write this stuff,” Trump replied.
Quick wound up apologizing, but many minutes later, she found the quote (calling Rubio the personal senator of Mark Zuckerberg) that Trump had disputed.
Anyone can make a mistake, but how do you not have the backup research at hand?
The crowd also booed Harwood when he invited Mike Huckabee to slam Trump by asking whether The Donald has the “moral authority” to unite the country. Huckabee deflected it with a joke, and Trump accused Harwood of “such a nasty question.”
As the Colorado night wore on, the debate’s focus often seemed to shift from the economy to the press. When Trump was railing against Super PACs, Rubio declared that the Democrats have a Super PAC called the mainstream media. He cited the positive reports of Hillary Clinton’s House Benghazi testimony (which some conservative commentators and even GOP candidates did say was a good day for her).
And Cruz may have overreached in comparing CNBC’s questions to those asked at the Democratic debate, since that event was handled by CNN.
Rubio may have had the most breakout moments, some of them sprinkled with humor. Cruz, Fiorina, Kasich and Chris Christie had a few. Bush failed to make his mark. Trump and Carson did nothing to hurt themselves.
But my takeaway is that the candidates were the most effective and impassioned when they bashed the media—and that CNBC gave them plenty of ammunition.
Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of "MediaBuzz" (Sundays 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. ET). He is the author of five books and is based in Washington. Follow him at @HowardKurtz. Click here for more information on Howard Kurtz.