Two Figures Emerge From a Fiery Debate

Screen Shot 2015-10-29 at 10.00.20 AMMAGGIE HABERMAN  Thursday, October 29, 2015


Good Thursday morning. John A. Boehner prepared his goodbye tour as speaker of the House and presided over a sweeping budget deal, but the third Republican debate stage was the center ring, as the candidates produced several clip-worthy exchanges and a fierce confrontation with one another and with their moderators. But, from the fray, two candidates stood tall.

It was a good night for Senators Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas. It was a rough one for Jeb Bush and the CNBC moderators.

And for everyone else onstage at the Republican presidential debate in Boulder, Colo., the outcome was basically the status quo.

It’s hard to overstate how poorly Mr. Bush is viewed by Republicans, including his supporters, after a debate that fell a week after he slashed his budget and acknowledged that the election terrain has not looked the way he expected it to.

Mired in single digits in the polls, he failed to land the punch he needed. Mr. Bush, who in his opening remarks said he did not want to spend the race tearing down other people, tried to hit Mr. Rubio over missing votes in the Senate, an issue raised by one of the moderators. Mr. Rubio effectively swatted down the attack from Mr. Bush, who tried to respond. Mr. Rubio spoke over him and mocked his previous comments comparing his campaign to the comeback effort of Senator John McCain in his 2008 presidential race.
For Mr. Rubio, who rode the Tea Party wave of anti-establishment anger in 2010 to win a contest against Charlie Crist, a Republican who was then the Florida governor, the attacks from Mr. Bush have helped. Mr. Bush has been running an establishment-focused candidacy, filled with endorsements and donor support, that is similar to the one Mr. Crist ran against Mr. Rubio. That has helped Mr. Rubio, who has started to be viewed through the lens of Washington after his time in the Senate, regain some of his outsider credibility.
Mr. Bush should have the resources to keep going for a while. But he will have to show the interest and ability to grind out a win that he hasn’t yet demonstrated. And many Republicans believe Mr. Rubio will finally start to see the donor support he has been poised to get for many weeks.
As for Mr. Cruz, he masterfully painted the debate moderators into tools of the elite news media, earning long rounds of applause from the crowd as he did so. He effectively answered a question about the party’s problem with female voters by pointing to his mother, who was abandoned by his father when he was a young boy. His father, he said, rediscovered religion and returned to the family.
The answer could further enhance Mr. Cruz’s allure with evangelical voters.
CNBC had the second-worst night. It was panned on social media and by Republican officials for losing control of the questions. Mr. Rubio also criticized the moderators, and the news media at large, to strong effect.
The two men who cumulatively have almost 50 percent of the polling support so far, Donald J. Trump, who seemed to be conscious of being more serious than in previous outings, and Ben Carson, were not dominant factors on Wednesday night. But that seems unlikely to hurt them anytime soon.
The two men have reliable bases of support, and Mr. Trump, in particular, may have a floor that he can’t sink below.