It’s never easy to try to upstage billionaire Donald Trump, even if you happen to be the newly minted frontrunner in Iowa for the GOP presidential nomination and your national polling numbers are beginning to take off.
So the question heading into Wednesday night’s third GOP presidential debate in Boulder, Colo., was whether Ben Carson, the soft-spoken former neurosurgeon who is suddenly in the limelight could go toe to toe with Trump while explaining his often confusing, shifting conservative ideas on taxes and health care. And how hard would Trump come down on his chief rival whom he once dismissed as another sleepy, “low-energy” candidate like Jeb Bush?
The answers came quickly at the start of the more than two-hour debate: With both men holding formidable leads in the polls, Trump and Carson essentially observed a non-aggression pact—making sure neither uttered a negative word about the other that would disrupt the current balance of power.
Carson immediately invoked Ronald Reagan’s “Eleventh Commandment” not to criticize his fellow Republicans, while Trump repeatedly sparred with CNBC moderator John Harwood and a suddenly pugnacious Ohio Gov. John Kasich, but almost completely left Carson alone.
Neither man made a serious gaffe, although both came under blistering questioning from Harwood and the other moderators over their tax cut plans and other economic strategies that some independent analysts claim would create drive up the deficit. Trump bridled when Harwood likened the real estate mogul’s proposals and boasting to “a comic book version of a presidential campaign.”
“It’s not a very nicely asked question the way you ask that,” Trump replied. “We’re reducing taxes to 15 percent, we’re bringing corporate taxes down, we’re bringing money back through corporate inversions, we have two-and-a-half trillion dollars outside of the United States which we want to bring back in.”
After a series of pointed questions, Ted Cruz (R-TX) couldn’t contain himself, and he ripped into the moderators at CNBC. "Let me say something at the outset," Cruz said. "The questions asked in this debate illustrate why the American people don't trust the media."
"This is not a cage match. And you look at the questions -- Donald Trump, are you a comic book villain? Ben Carson, can you do math? John Kasich, will you insult two people over here? Marco Rubio, why don't you resign? Jeb Bush, why have your numbers fallen? How about talking about the substantive issues," Cruz said as the audience applauded wildly.
Later, Marco Rubio had a chance to berate the moderators, and to make take a swipe at Hillary Clinton. "The Democrats have the ultimate super PAC — it's called the mainstream media," Rubio said. "Last week, Hillary Clinton went before a committee. She admitted she sent emails to her family saying, 'This attack on Benghazi was caused by Al Qaeda-like elements.' She spent over a week telling the families of those victims and the American people that it was because of a video. And yet, the mainstream media is going around saying it was the greatest week in Hillary Clinton's campaign ... It was the week she got exposed as a liar."
CNBC’s Becky Quick insisted that Carson’s proposed 10 percent flat tax plan would generate only $1.5 trillion a year of revenues, or less than half of what the Treasury is collecting now.
“Well, first of all I never said the rate is 10 percent,” Carson replied. “I used the tithing analogy, but the rate is going to be much closer to 15 percent. You also have to get rid of all the deductions and all of the loopholes. You also have to do some strategic [budget] cutting in several places.”
“These plans would put us trillions and trillions of dollars in debt,” Kasich said of both the Trump and Carson tax-cut proposals. “You don’t just make promises like this. Why don’t we just get a chicken in every pot while we’re coming up with these fantasy tax schemes?”
By the end of the evening, the chummy Trump and Carson did everything but embrace. “I just want to thank all my colleagues here for being civil [and] not falling for the trap,” Carson said.
While the two GOP candidates atop the polls kept the kid gloves on, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) showed he could be a force to reckon with in the future.
He brushed off an early question about his truancy in the Senate, an issue that has cropped up more and more in recent weeks and was driven home in a Sun-Sentinel editorial that called on him to resign his seat instead of “ripping off” Floridians.
“I read that editorial with great amusement he said,” he said, noting the same newspaper hasn’t called on other senators running for the White House to resign their seats.
But former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, a Rubio mentor, didn’t want to let the issue die, highlighting that he was a “constituent of the senator and I helped him and I expected that he would do constituent service which means he shows up to work.”
“I mean literally, the Senate, what is it like a French work week?” he asked.
“I don’t remember you ever complaining about John McCain’s voting record,” Rubio fired back, invoking the name of the 2008 GOP presidential nominee. “Someone has convinced you that attacking me is going to help you.”
Rubio later used a question about his suspect personal finances, including a home foreclosure, to plug his life story – and his latest book. He joked that he had to explain to his wife why “some woman” named Sallie Mae was taking $1,000 from their banking account and called critiques of his pocket book as a “litany of discredited attacks.”
When one of the moderators noted he made recently $1 million in book sales, Rubio said he used the money to pay off his outstanding student loans and that the book is now available in paperback.
After the contentious debate with CNBC, Republican National Committee Chair, Reince Priebus, told CNN, “I was very disappointed in the moderators. I’m very disappointed at CNBC. I thought maybe they would bring forward a pretty fair forum here tonight, but I think it was one ‘gotcha’ question, one personal low blow after the other.”