The winner of the atrocious CNBC debate was Dr. Ben Carson. He came into Boulder on the upswing: taking the lead in Iowa polls and in one national poll, doing well in fundraising, and connecting with enthusiastic crowds. Nothing happened on stage to slow his momentum. Indeed, nothing happened at the CNBC debate to change the overall trajectory of the GOP race for president. So Carson wins—but so did Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Donald Trump.
Rubio had by far the best line of the night when he called the mainstream media the biggest Super PAC of all. It was a clever locution made all the more powerful by the ridiculous behavior of the six (!) CNBC personalities who asked questions of the 10 candidates. The moderators were far more interested in debating the candidates than in letting the Republicans debate themselves. Rubio also effectively defended himself from Jeb Bush's charge that he's missing too many votes in the Senate. He exerted his strengths as a candidate—optimism, policy knowledge, and message discipline. He'll be one of the last men standing.
Ted Cruz also performed well. He lambasted the moderators—justifiably—and continued his persistent attacks on the "Washington machine." Cruz has stature, money, a message, and a well-thought-out campaign strategy.
Why do I count Trump among the winners? Nothing happened to change anyone's perceptions of him. He was funny, brash, populist. Trump's lead in Iowa seems to have vanished. But he's still going strong in some national polls and in New Hampshire. If you liked Trump going into this debate, you probably liked him going out of it. Indeed, even if you didn't like him going in, you probably ended up liking him at least in comparison with the CNBC crowd.
My dark horse: Chris Christie. He doesn't have much traction in the polls, but he had a great debate performance. Maybe New Hampshire voters will give him a second look.
Overall, the debate was dispiriting. No one seemed to be in control. The candidates and moderators talked over each other. Many, if not most, of the questions were obnoxious. And there was no breakout star.
CNBC, can I have my two hours back?