The third Republican presidential primary debate was a sprawling, messy affair that played out more as a battle between candidates and moderators than an exchange among the debaters. At this point the key problem is the sheer number of human beings on stage: it is virtually impossible to design a format that accommodates this many people -- ten candidates and a whopping six questioners. CNBC may not have deserved the bruising its journalists took, but the network must shoulder the blame for devising such an unsatisfying structure.
Although the Boulder debate offered few climactic moments, it did produce its share of winners and losers. Marco Rubio turned in his third solid debate performance in a row, showing no fear as he took on both Jeb Bush and the CNBC questioners. Rubio brings two important skills to the debate arena: a talent for deflecting incoming attacks and an alertness to his opportunities. Rubio's performance is consistently animated, and he projects an air of belonging on the debate stage that his competitors would do well to study.
If there is a chink in Rubio's armor as a debater, it is that his rhetoric too often devolves into glibness. Rubio is at his best when he is extemporizing, because he reacts very effectively in the moment. By contrast, when he lapses into his memorized sound bites, he sounds phony. For a candidate with a particular need to project gravitas, an aura of insincerity is the last thing Rubio needs to saddle himself with.
Ted Cruz asserted himself more forcefully in this debate than in the two previous outings. Taking a page from Newt Gingrich's 2012 playbook, Cruz was the first (but not the last) of the debaters to gripe about the moderators and their questions. He also tamped down the self-righteousness that can make him so exasperating to listen to. Surprisingly, Cruz was the only candidate to make a joking reference to Colorado's legal marijuana -- not what you'd expect from this generally humorless senator.
Carly Fiorina showed once again that she is a formidable debater with a knack for explaining complicated concepts in simple, everyday language. No matter how uncomfortable the questioning, Fiorina never gets rattled. She knows what she is there to do and she does it. A line from her closing statement illustrates the degree to which Fiorina correctly perceives televised debates as theatrical exercises: "I'm Hillary Clinton's worst nightmare, and in your heart of hearts you can't wait to see a debate between Hillary Clinton and Carly Fiorina." There's no disputing that.
Though not quite in the same league, Chris Christie also had a decent debate. Like Fiorina, he appears totally at ease on the debate stage, and he is never less than fully engaged. Yet Christie spent too much of his limited debate time throwing shade at Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama when he needed to be advancing a positive agenda of his own. There comes a point when Christie's relentless carping begins to feel like a substitute for original ideas.
Which brings us to the candidates who landed outside the winners' circle. Despite a few crowd-pleasing moments, Ben Carson did not manage to dispel doubts about his readiness for the presidency -- or his ability to withstand heightened scrutiny from the press. More positively, Carson was wise to establish at the outset his unwillingness to attack his opponents. On the one hand, this self-inoculation allowed him to remain above the fray; on the other, Carson's reluctance to engage left him adrift for long stretches of the debate.
In the opening response of the night, John Kasich came on strong, pleading with Republican voters not to take leave of their senses in selecting a nominee. Kasich needed to hammer away at this as his central argument of the night; instead he dropped the ball and meandered. Kasich the performer is not a naturally engaging figure. His herky-jerky motions and mild air of irritation make him less than agreeable to watch. Mainly, however, he seemed not to apprehend his mission.
The night produced two clear losers: Donald Trump and Jeb Bush. Trump, with his lead apparently eroding, appeared uncharacteristically diminished. By sticking with his familiar -- and all too vague -- nostrums, Trump reinforced the notion that his candidacy has hit a plateau. At this point the act is getting stale. The man seems to be receding before our eyes.
If Trump was bad, Bush was worse. Jeb Bush's ineptitude as a debater is staggering. For three consecutive debates now, he has given off a palpable, non-stop sense of wanting to be somewhere else. He is like his father in the 1992 town hall debate, minus the watch. When he's not standing there like a lump of coal, Bush is butchering his prepared set pieces. A planned confrontation with Marco Rubio turned into an easy victory for Rubio, because at the first hint of conflict, Bush retreated into his shell like a turtle.
With the Republican debate miniseries now officially one-third over, it is time for the producers to alter their approach. The networks cannot expect to sustain high ratings by repeating what has been successful before. For the next debate, they ought to thin the herd -- candidates and questioners alike. Otherwise it may be the audience that thins out.