The Republican debate in Boulder was an embarrassment — not for any of the candidates involved, but for CNBC. I attended the debate, and as I was walking out of the Coors Center, one person randomly walking by succinctly summed up the event when he said, "I didn't think it was possible, but the CNBC moderators were worse than the MSNBC moderators." One of the cardinal rules of journalism is that the journalist should cover the story, but should never be the story. That rule was shattered in the first moments of the debate, and crushed into tiny shards by the end of it.
Media bias is well-known, and it's real. But the contrast between the softballs tossed to the candidates in the Democrat debate and the nasty, snarky and sarcastic barbs aimed at the Republican candidates by John Harwood, Becky Quick and their lesser scribes could not have been more stark. The ostensible topic of this debate was the economy, and it should have been perfectly suited for the little-known and hard to find CNBC cable channel that is supposed to be NBC's business news channel.
Instead, it immediately devolved into a shameful display of self-focused moderator ego that utterly failed to achieve its stated mission. Charles Krauthammer was right when he called it "obnoxious," "disorganized" and "appalling", as was former Attorney General Ed Meese when he said "After 15 minutes it was clear that this was not a debate, but a verbal shooting gallery set up by CNBC, with the targets the Republican candidates and the shooters their biased antagonists from the press."
The Republican candidates appeared to be prepared for a substantive debate on the economy, but the moderators were not. Nowhere was this more evident than in the exchange between Harwood and Rubio over his tax plan. Harwood completely misrepresented what the Tax Foundation said about Rubio's plan, and Rubio nailed him for it. Within minutes, the president of the Tax Foundation tweeted that Rubio was right and Harwood wrong. With more people watching CNBC than that diminutive network has ever had, its senior anchor and correspondent was so an unprofessional that it should probably end his career. It was that bad.
Now, how did the candidates do in spite of the hostile environment? They all had their moments, but Rubio, Cruz, Christie and Fiorina had more of them than the rest. Meanwhile, both Trump and Carson held serve, in the memorable words of Joe Scarborough. The losers were Bush, Kasich, Paul and Huckabee, although none of them really bombed.
Bush was flat when he desperately needed a breakout performance. One headline the following day said simply "Jeb dead." He may be, although his campaign's extensive cash on hand will allow him to hang around for longer than he should.
Kasich shouted each answer and was basically unlikeable.
Paul was thoughtful, as always, but too whiny to inspire any undecided voters.
Huckabee once again demonstrated debating talents honed by his years as a preacher and a TV host in addition to his political experience, but he showed little depth on policy.
Rubio was the overall winner. He was prepared, specific, unruffled and lightly humorous. In short, he was the most likeable of the substantive candidates and the most substantive of the likeable candidates.
Close behind him was Carly Fiorina, who has not received the acclaim she deserves from her performance in this third debate. She may not have won it outright as she did her first two debates, but she clearly demonstrated that she is in the top five. She's razor sharp mentally, articulate verbally and displays occasional flashes of humor that are spot on. In short, she's a convincing addition to the top tier.
Several of the people sitting near me in the Coors Center said that the sooner the number of candidates gets whittled down to a more manageable number, the better. That may take a while, but my present candidates for the long haul, the enduring top five, are Carson, Trump, Rubio, Fiorina and Christie.
Christie was not on that list until this debate. I don't think he'll make it all the way — but just ask yourself, wouldn't he make a great Attorney General?
Let's hope that the next debate in just over a week is focused on the candidates and not the moderators. Given that the debate will be moderated by Neil Cavuto and Maria Bartoromo of Fox Business (she is formerly of CNBC) and the Oxford-educated Gerard Baker of the Wall Street Journal, there's a good chance that it will.
(Colin Hanna is President of Let Freedom Ring, USA.)