It was a big night Wednesday in the race for the Republican Party nomination, as 10 GOP candidates attempted to show America who is most qualified to lead the nation.
The winner is still be up for debate, but the loser may have been CNBC, which hosted the third Republican presidential debate at the Coors Events Center in Boulder, Colorado.
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One by one, several GOP candidates took issue with the questions from the channel's moderators when those questions came across as demeaning or downright silly.
The following candidates took the stage: Billionaire businessman Donald Trump, retired neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul.
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The main debate, titled "Your Money, Your Vote," was moderated by CNBC's Carl Quintanilla, co-anchor of "Squawk on the Street" and "Squawk Alley"; Becky Quick, co-anchor of "Squawk Box"; and Chief Washington Correspondent John Harwood. Republican contenders debated issues such as job growth, taxes, technology, retirement and health of the U.S. economy.
Biggest applause of the night
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Christie ripped into moderators for asking whether government should regulate fantasy football sites such as DraftKings and FanDuel.
"We have a government involved in fantasy football?!" Christie asked incredulously.
His question came only moments after Bush provided a long description of how he would regulate the websites.
Christie blasted the CNBC moderators: "Wait a second. We have $19 trillion in debt. We have people out of work. We have ISIS and al-Qaida attacking us, and we're talking about fantasy football?!"
The crowd roared with enthusiastic applause, wild cheers and whistles.
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Watch Christie's shining moment:
"How about we get the government to do what they're supposed to be doing – secure our borders, protect our people and support American values and American families?" Christie asked. "Enough on fantasy football. Let people play! Who cares?!”
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CNBC takes swipes at Trump and Cruz
A CNBC moderator took a stab at Trump, asking if he was running a "comic book version of a presidential campaign.
Trump replied, "No, not a comic book, and it's not a very nicely asked question the way you say that." He clarified some of his positions on bringing jobs back to the U.S. and building a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.
Then, later in the debate, Quintanilla turned to Cruz and asked: "Senator Cruz, congressional Republicans, Democrats and the White House are about to strike a compromise that would raise the debt limit, prevent a government shutdown and calm financial markets that fear of another Washington-created crisis is on the way. Does your opposition to it show that you're not the kind of problem solver American voters want?"
Cruz launched into the moderators about their debate questions.
"You know, let me say something at the outset. The questions that have been asked so far in this debate illustrate why the American people don't trust the media."
The crowd applauded.
Cruz added, "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 the people care about?!"
Cruz added, "Contrast with the Democratic debate, where every fawning question from the media was, 'Which of you is more handsome and why?'"
The crowd laughed with amusement.
"Let me be clear. The men and women on this stage have more ideas, more experience, more common sense than every participant in the Democratic debate," Cruz said. "That debate reflected a debate between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks. And nobody watching at home believed that any of the moderators had any intention of voting in a Republican primary. The questions that are being asked shouldn't be trying to get people to tear into each other. It should be what are your substantive positions."
CNBC also hosted an undercard debate earlier Wednesday, where the same moderators posed questions about topics such as beer sales, which cell phone apps they have on their phones and whether the day after the Super Bowl should be declared a national holiday.
Trump packs heat: Gun-free zones 'feeding frenzy' for 'sickos'
During the debate, Trump said he "might feel more comfortable" if his employees were allowed to bring guns to work.
"I have a permit, which is very unusual in New York, to carry. I do carry on occasion, sometimes a lot. but I like to be unpredictable ...
"But I feel that gun-free zones, that's target practice for sickos and for the mentally ill. They look around for gun-free zones. ... I think gun-free zones are a catastrophe. They're a feeding frenzy for sick people."
What's your biggest weakness?
The event began with the question: What's your biggest weakness and what are you doing to address it?
Kasich essentially declined to answer the question, instead talking about other issues
Huckabee said, "If I have a weakness, it's that I try to live by the rules. ... I'll tell you what a weakness is of this country, a lot of people are sick and tired because Washington does not play by the same rules that the American people have to play by."
Jeb: "I am by nature impatient. ... I can't fake anger. I believe this is still the most extraordinary country on the face of the Earth. And it troubles me that people are rewarded for tearing down our country. It's never been that way in American politics before."
Rubio agreed: "I'm not sure it's a weakness, but I do believe that I share a sense of optimism for America's future that, today, is eroding from too many of our people. I think there's a sense in this country today that somehow our best days are behind us. And that doesn't have to be true. Our greatest days lie ahead if we are willing to do what it takes now. If we're willing to do what it takes now, the 21st century is going to be the new American century, greater than any other era we've had in the history of this great nation."
Trump told the crowd, "I think maybe my greatest weakness is that I trust people too much. I'm too trusting. And when they let me down, if they let me down, I never forgive. I find it very, very hard to forgive people that deceive me. So I don't know if you would call that a weakness, but my wife said 'let up.'"
Carson said, "Not really seeing myself in that position [of president] until hundreds of thousands of people began to tell me to do it. I do, however, believe in Reagan's 11th commandment, and will not be engaging in awful things about my compatriots here. And recognizing that it's so important, this election, because we're talking about America for the people versus America for the government."
Fiorina: "After the last debate, I was told I didn't smile enough. But I also think these are very serious times; 75 percent of the American people think the federal government is corrupt. I agree with them. And this big powerful, corrupt bureaucracy works now only for the big, the powerful, the wealthy and the well-connected. Meantime, wages have stagnated for 40 years. We have more Americans out of work or just Americans who quit looking for work for 40 years. Ours was intended to be a citizen government. This is about more than replacing a D with an R. We need a leader who will help us take our government back."
Cruz: "I'm a fighter. I'm passionate about what I believe. I've been passionate my whole life about the Constitution."
Christie: "I don't see a lot of weakness on this stage. Where I see the weakness is in the three people on the Democratic stage."
Paul avoided the question and instead spoke about his concern for the nation's $18 trillion debt. The debate takes place less than two days before the House is set to vote on a two-year budget deal negotiated by outgoing House Speaker John Boehner and President Obama that authorizes $1.5 trillion to be added to the nation's debt and a $40 billion increase in spending. Paul promised to filibuster the deal.
Plans for tax reform
The candidates discussed their plans for tax reform. Cruz unveiled his big economic plan for a flat tax during the debate.
"It is a simple flat tax where for individuals, a family of four pays nothing on the first $36,000," Cruz explained. "After that, you pay 10 percent as a flat tax going up. The billionaire and the working man, no hedge fund manager pays less than his secretary. On top of that, there is a business flat tax of 16 percent. Now that applies universally to giant corporations that with lobbyists right now are not paying taxes, and as small business."
Cruz said his plan "will allow the economy to generate 4.9 million jobs, to raise wages over 12 percent, and to generate 14 percent growth. And it costs, with dynamic scoring, less than a trillion dollars. Those are the hard numbers."
Carson proposed a flat tax set at 15 percent and said the U.S. would need to get rid of tax loopholes and stimulate the economy by slashing government regulation.
"Remember, we have 645 federal agencies and sub-agencies," Carson said. "Anybody who tells me that we need every penny and every one of those is in a fantasy world. So, also, we can stimulate the economy. That's gonna be the real growth engine. Stimulating the economy – because it's tethered down right now with so many regulations."
Kasich blasted his fellow Republicans' plans: "You can't do it with empty promises. You know, these plans would put us trillions and trillions of dollars in debt!" Kasich said his plan would create jobs, cut taxes and balance the budget, rather than "coming up with these fantasy tax schemes" other GOP candidates have proposed.
Fiorina said, "We need a leader in Washington who understands how to get things done," and she proposed limiting the 73,000-page tax code to only three pages. She said, three pages is about the maximum that a single business owner or farmer can understand without having to hire someone.
Rubio's missed Senate votes
Bush criticized Rubio for missing so many votes in the U.S. Senate during his presidential campaign. On Wednesday, a local newspaper editorial, the South Florida Sun Sentinel, called for Rubio to resign because the senator had missed more votes than any other senator during a presidential campaign.
Rubio noted that Bush never attacked Sen. John McCain for missing votes when he ran for the office:
"The only reason why you're doing it now is because we're running for the same position, and someone has convinced you that attacking me is going to help you."
Rubio appeared to have the upper hand in the exchange.
"I'm not – my campaign is going to be about the future of America, it's not going to be about attacking anyone else on this stage," Rubio said. "I will continue to have tremendous admiration and respect for Governor Bush. I'm not running against Governor Bush, I'm not running against anyone on this stage. I'm running for president because there is no way we can elect Hillary Clinton to continue the policies of Barack Obama."
Pundits say Wednesday's debate offers Bush a much-needed opportunity to deliver a memorable performance and break out of his slump.
Now Bush, perhaps distressed by Trump's observation that he's a "low-energy candidate," his weak fundraising and his sinking position in the polls, is slashing campaign spending and staff salaries.
Social Security crisis
Christie, asked about his proposal to raise the eligibility age for Social Security, warned about the dire state of the program.
"The government has lied to you and they have stolen from you," Christie told listeners. " They told you your money is in a trust fund . … Social Security is going to be insolvent in seven to eight years."
He said his plan will save $1 trillion. Noting that Hillary Clinton has proposed increasing Social Security taxes, he asked, "If somebody has stolen from you, are you going to give them more?"
Huckabee sounded off on the Social Security crisis: "This is money that people have confiscated out of their paychecks," noting that the government took the funds before anyone ever saw it in their paychecks.
"Let me tell you who not to blame," he said. "Let's quite blaming the people on Social Security. It's like getting mugged. … This is a matter not of math, this is amatter of morality."
Christie interjected, "There isn't more anymore Mike, they stole it! Let's stop fooling around. Let's tell them the truth."
Quick states that women earn just 77 percent of what men earn in America. She then asked Cruz: "What would you do as president to try and help?"
"Well, we've got to turn the economy around for people who are struggling," he said. "The Democrats' answer to everything is more government control over wages, and more empowering trial lawyers to file lawsuits. ... When you see Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders and all the Democrats talking about wanting to address the plight of working women, not a one of them mentioned the fact that under Barack Obama, 3.7 million women have entered poverty."
He continued, "Not a one of them mentioned the fact that under Barack Obama and the big government economy, the median wage for women has dropped $733. The the truth of the matter is, big government benefits the wealthy, it benefits the lobbyists, it benefits the giant corporations. And the people who are getting hammered are small businesses, it's single moms, it's Hispanics. That is who I'm fighting for. The people that Washington leaves behind.
Then Fiorina jumped in.
"It is the height of hypocrisy for Mrs. Clinton to talk about being the first woman president, when every single policy she espouses, and every single policy of President Obama has been demonstrably bad for women. Ninety-two percent of the jobs lost during Barack Obama's first term belonged to women. Senator Cruz is precisely right. Three million women have fallen into poverty under this administration."
Carson and Costco's 'gay' brand
Carson was asked why he would serve on the corporate board of Costco, which supports the homosexual lobby.
Quintanilla asked, "We wanted to ask you about your involvement on some corporate boards, including Costco's. Last year, a marketing study called the warehouse retailer the number one gay-friendly brand in America, partly because of its domestic partner benefits. Why would you serve on a company whose policies seem to run counter to your views on homosexuality?"
Carson replied, "Obviously, you don't understand my views on homosexuality. I believe that our Constitution protects everybody, regardless of their sexual orientation or any other aspect. I also believe that marriage is between one man and one woman. And there is no reason that you can't be perfectly fair to the gay community.
"They shouldn't automatically assume that because you believe that marriage is between one man and one woman that you are a homophobe. And this is one of the myths that the left perpetrates on our society, and this is how they frighten people and get people to shut up. You know, that's what the PC culture is all about, and it's destroying this nation.
"The fact of the matter is, we the American people are not each other's enemies. It's those people who are trying to divide us who are the enemies. And we need to make that very clear to everybody."
Ending the Fed
Cruz was asked: "Do you want to get Congress involved in monetary policy, or is it time to slap the Fed back and downsize them completely?"
"I have got deep concerns about the Fed," Cruz said. "The first thing I think we need to do is audit the Fed. And I am an original co-sponsor of Rand Paul's audit the Fed legislation. The second thing we need to do is I think we need to bring together a bipartisan commission to look at getting back to rules-based monetary policy, end this star chamber that has been engaging in this incredible experiment of quantitative easing, QE1, QE2, QE3, QE- infinity."
He continued, "We need sound money. And I think the Fed should get out of the business of trying to juice our economy and simply be focused on sound money and monetary stability, ideally tied to gold."
The same question was posed to Paul, who replied:
"I think it's precisely because of the arrogance of someone like Ben Bernanke, who now calls us all know-nothings, that is precisely why we need audit the Fed. I think it is really very much a huge problem that an organization as powerful as the Fed comes in, lobbies against them being audited on the Hill. I would prevent them lobbying Congress. I don't think the Fed should be involved with lobbying us.
"I think we should examine how the Fed has really been part of the problem. You want to study income inequality, let's bring the Fed forward and talk about Fed policy and how it causes income inequality.
"Let's also bring the Fed forward and have them explain how they caused the housing boom and the crisis, and what they've done to make us better or worse. I think the Fed has been a great problem in our society. What you need to do is free up interest rates. Interest rates are the price of money, and we shouldn't have price controls on the price of money."
Carson and Trump: Too close to call
Notably, both leading GOP candidates are political outsiders and masters of their trades. Trump, a billionaire real-estate developer and reality TV star, studied economics at the University of Pennsylvania. Carson, an outspoken critic of Obamacare and the first surgeon to successfully separate twins who were joined at the head, spent nearly three decades as director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins.
Carson now has a narrow lead over Trump, according to a New York Times/CBS News survey released Tuesday. He also has the highest favorability rating of any of the Republican candidates, according to Gallup.
In the NYT/CBS poll, 26 percent of Republican primary voters preferred Carson, while 22 percent favored Trump. Since early October, Carson has gained five points, and Trump lost five.
The two contenders are well ahead of the rest of the GOP pack. Sen. Marco Rubio garnered 8 percent. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina each received the support of 7 percent of respondents. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, former Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas and Gov. John Kasich of Ohio each came in at 4 percent.
However, not all polls have Carson on top.
A One America News Network poll shows Trump 14 points ahead of Carson, with 35.6 percent support. Four polls conducted in mid-October by CNN/ORC International, Monmouth, NBC/Wall Street Journal, and ABC/Washington Post all had Trump leading Carson by at least 10 points.
Trump called the latest polls "fictitious" and told Politico before the event: "I don't expect the debate to be fair."
For the other 12 GOP contenders, the question is whether any of them can break out of the pack by generating a memorable moment that will leave a lasting and positive impression with voters, despite the long shadow cast by Trump and Carson.
CNBC 'kiddie table' debate
CNBC also hosted an undercard debate earlier Wednesday that featured the following GOP candidates who met a minimum threshold of 1 percent in the polls: former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, former New York Gov. George Pataki and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham.
In that debate, Graham – who appeared to speak longer than anyone else on the stage – warned of what he believes to be the threat of climate change: "I've talked to the climatologists … we're heating up the planet."
Pataki agreed that climate change is real, and he blasted Americans for "questioning science." He argued that CO2 does make the earth warmer, and "I want Republicans to embrace innovation and technology," he said. He suggested credits for companies that pursued technologies to stop climate change.
Graham also said, as president, he would increase legal immigration, "because we're going to have a shortage of workers over time." He said America can't deport 11 million immigrants, and his administration would focus on deporting lawbreakers.
Graham argued that the American workforce needs to be expanded to pay for Social Security. He said employers are having difficulty finding American workers to do jobs others will do.
Graham also declared, "I'm trying to win an election. I'm tired of losing!" Of the Democrats, he said: "If we don't beat these people, who the hell are we going to beat?"
Santorum argued that America has brought in too many immigrants – legal and illegal – in recent years.
"We're bringing in people to compete against low-wage workers," he said, adding that the Obama administration's immigration policies are "not solving problems for American workers." "We have to make sure that we are not flooding this country with competition with low-wage workers," Santorum said.
Jindal warned, "We're on the path toward socialism." He suggested repealing Obamacare and implementation of a flat tax. He also said Americans are frustrated "because nothing's changing in D.C."
Asked what he would do to ease income inequality, Santorum said, "I believe we need to reduce the government, but we also need to reduce our deficit."
Other topics included beer sales, cell phone apps and whether the day after the Super Bowl should be declared a national holiday.
Graham quipped, "I think a national holiday will be the day Barack Obama, commander in chief, doesn't have that job."