Once again, the media got it wrong. That big blimp circling out of control over Pennsylvania farmland this week? It wasn't an Army experiment from Aberdeen Proving Ground, after all. It was the Jeb Bush campaign, leaking air as it made one final, desperate pass over a key battleground state before crashing and burning – just as Jeb himself would do a couple of hours later on the debate stage in Boulder, Colorado.
But Bush wasn't the only loser in the latest GOP dust-up. Oddly enough, there were two big losers, before we even got to the candidates.
The first big loser was the American people. Consider: This is only the end of October. Yet we've already suffered through four presidential debates, three by Republican candidates and one by Democrats – for an election that's still 13 months away!
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In effect, this campaign's been under way since April 2013, when Jeb Bush announced he was "seriously" considering running for president in 2016. Ted Cruz was actually the first one to declare, on March 15, 2015 – still 20 months before the election. By contrast, in the 1960 presidential election, John F. Kennedy did not announce until Jan. 2 of that same year. Today, presidential elections start way too early and last way too long.
Second big loser? CNBC, which never should have been trusted with hosting a presidential debate. The long panel between the JV and varsity debates was unwatchable. The three moderators in the main event were rude, hostile, unprepared and incapable of maintaining control. Any local television station could have done a better job.
Among the candidates, Chris Christie, John Kasich and Ted Cruz actually had a good night. Kasich demonstrated more energy, the most budget experience and the greatest willingness to take on his own party. Christie finally brought his A-game to the big stage. And Ted Cruz generated the most electricity with his well-deserved attack on moderator John Harwood. By contrast, Mike Huckabee, Carly Fiorina and Rand Paul could have done just as well by not showing up at all.
The night's big winner? Hands down, Marco Rubio. Young, articulate and smart as a whip, he always seemed the most likely to break out of the pack, and finally did: destroying Jeb Bush over his Senate voting record and accusing the media of playing favorites with Hillary. Wednesday night's performance catapults Rubio into the top tier.
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If Rubio had a great night, Donald Trump had an off night. Yes, his classic bluster occasionally broke through, but he didn't dominate the way he has in the past, and he didn't attack every other candidate. Indeed, at times it was easy to forget he was even on stage.
Ben Carson had an even worse night. All those people who tuned in especially to get their first look at the candidate who recently soared to first place in the Iowa polls must have been scratching their heads and asking: Who? What? Why? Carson couldn't explain his own tax plan. He apparently sees no contradiction in claiming to be gay-friendly while still treating LGBT Americans as second-class citizens by denying them the right to get married. And he flat-out lied about his connection to the nutritional supplement manufacturer Mannatech for whom he taped an endorsement video praising "glyconutrients" and saying he takes them himself.
Yet all of the above fared better than Jeb Bush, for which Wednesday's debate was, or should be, the end of the line. His campaign was hurting, anyway. Having started out as the immediate front-runner and heir to the throne, and once considered the best politician in the family, Bush was never able to connect with voters. He quickly sank to single digits in the polls and was forced to cut staff salaries just last week.
But his big mistake came in challenging Rubio for missing so many votes in the Senate. He should have known Rubio would have been ready for that one, loaded with voting records of other presidential candidates. And, besides, how many people outside the Beltway care about that issue, anyway? When that exchange was over, Bush looked like a washed-up old boxer beat to a pulp by a rookie.
For a while, Jeb Bush was the establishment favorite. His campaign had everything going for it: experience, tons of money, big-name endorsements and universal name-recognition. In the end, all it lacked was a candidate.