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At Debate, GOP Candidates Turn Into Media Critics

  NHPR's State of Democracy app is sponsored in part by: The NH Primary Student Convention, January 4th-6th, 2016.

So, what did we learn from Wednesday night’s Republican presidential debate?

The candidates are happy to chime in as media critics, particularly if they don’t feel like answering whatever question’s in front of them.

Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio are finally taking the gloves off, though Rubio seems to have won this round — his rebuff of a critique by Bush was one of the standout moments of the night.

Donald Trump and Ben Carson are sticking to their usual scripts, but both seemed fine with sitting back and letting other candidates spar in the spotlight. 

And the CNBC moderators could have, shall we say, done their homework a bit better ahead of the forum. If there’s one clear-cut loser from last night’s debate, it may well be the network itself.

Trump loses spot as top talker

In the first two GOP debates Donald Trump dominated the speaking time.

Trump was still one of the most verbose candidates Wednesday, but he was edged out by three others who spoke slightly more: Carly Fiorina came out on top with 10:32 minutes, followed by Marco Rubio with 10:10, John Kasich with 9:42 and Trump with 9:26.

The quietest candidates of the night, however, were Jeb Bush and Rand Paul. Each struggled to match their opponents’ share of the spotlight, clocking in at about six minutes of speaking time during the roughly two-hour-long program.

Everyone’s favorite punching bag: The media

When the candidates weren’t sparring with each other, they were ganging up on the CNBC moderators — characterizing the questions as petty, dismissing claims about their records and otherwise lamenting the “mainstream media”.

As the Washington Post summed it up the morning after the debate, the candidates capitalized on two factors when airing these complaints: “a stumbling CNBC moderating crew and long-standing conservative distrust of the media.

Marco Rubio — crowned the “winner” in many post-debate analyses for his sharp, smooth delivery — was the first to deflect a question by taking aim at the press. Later on, a moderator asked Ted Cruz a question about his opposition to a compromise on the debt limit — but instead of responding to that question, Cruz launched into some press criticism of his own.

“The questions that have been asked so far in this debate illustrate why the American people don’t trust the media,” Cruz shot back. “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?”

Chris Christie took a similar tack later on, pillorying the moderators for asking a question about fantasy football. (The question itself centered on whether the government should treat the pastime as a form of gambling.)

The candidates were aided by the fact that the moderators, when confronted with this pushback, were in several cases unable to point to specific sources to back up their questions. As the Post points out, though, the candidates might’ve won their battle against CNBC — but the rest of the media was more than ready to push back with fact-checks and other critiques of the claims by Thursday morning. 

GOP candidates not alone in complaining

The Democratic candidates were ready with their own commentary on the debate. Bernie Sanders, who held his own student town hall during the debate, tweeted out a photo ahead of the forum linking the candidates to the “billionaire class.” Martin O’Malley also held a rally with students at the University of Colorado as his own counter-programming and offered a few responses to the Republicans. After the debate wrapped up, Hillary Clinton opted for a simple GIF reaction

The candidates, however, weren’t the only ones with criticism for CNBC. New Hampshire Republican Party Chairwoman Jennifer Horn, on Twitter, called the debate questions “a joke” and a “total embarrassment.”

Steve Duprey, a Republican National Committeeman from New Hampshire who was heavily involved in debate planning this year, also aired some complaints on Twitter during the debate. 

His plea, in part: “Stick with economy as advertised!”

You can watch the full debates here, or read the transcripts for the debates here and here.

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