The stage at Coors Events Center for the third Republican presidential debate in October 2015. (Photo courtesy of Glenn Asakawa)

GOP debate from inside the CEC: Moderators and candidates clash

Contact CU Independent Copy Editor Ellis Arnold at ellis.arnold@colorado.edu.

It was round three for the GOP last night at the University of Colorado’s Coors Events Center, where the long-anticipated third Republican presidential debate took place in front of just over 1,000 students, donors and party officials. A crowded stage of 10 candidates squared off on economic policy and the size and role of government. But the main conflict wasn’t between those on stage — the highlight exchanges of the night took place between candidates and CNBC moderators.

Loosened up from the undercard debate that ended just 40 minutes prior, the audience was standing up and chatting as they waited for the main candidates’ debate to begin. The warm and easygoing atmosphere in the debate hall gave way to silence at 6 p.m. as the audience was directed to its seats — and after an introduction from the RNC and CNBC chairmen, the candidates rolled out one by one to the stage.

The debate began with some quick laughs from the audience at Mike Huckabee’s response to the humorous first question about what the candidates see as their own weaknesses.

“Well, I don’t have any weaknesses,” Huckabee said. “But you can ask my wife what they are.” Sen. Ted Cruz’s response that he was “too agreeable” and “easygoing” also drummed up some laughter, and it was clear that the audience was in a good mood and engaged with the candidates.

The audience applauded for the first time at Ben Carson’s defense of his tax plan, and more applause rang out for Gov. John Kasich’s rebuttal of several candidates’ plans as “fantasy.” Just over 10 minutes in, the audience was fully plugged in and the debate seemed to be headed in a substantive direction.

10 minutes later, the debate took a small turn that would derail it.

The moderators asked Sen. Marco Rubio if he “hates his job” as senator, as the Sun-Sentinel editorial board claimed in a piece on Tuesday. The editorial was based on information put out by the Washington Post that a long-time friend of Rubio said he hates the job, as well as the fact that Rubio has missed more votes than any other senator this year.

Rubio, savvy and quick to retaliate, said that the editorial “is actually evidence of the bias that exists in the American media today,” going on to point out that the Sun-Sentinel endorsed a then-Sen. Obama in the past, despite the fact that he missed votes as well.

That answer was followed by the loudest applause so far that night. Volleys from Rubio in response to criticism from Jeb Bush also received applause, as Rubio took aim at Hillary Clinton.

About five minutes later, Cruz took Rubio’s sentiment to an intensity unseen up to that point in the debate — moderators asked if he was the kind of problem-solver the country needs, and he launched into rattling off a list of what he saw as unfair questions from the moderators.

“The questions asked in this debate illustrate why the American people don’t trust the media,” Cruz said, citing questions directed at Trump, Carson and Rubio, among others. “We need to talk about the substance.”

Cruz’s riff was met with applause from the audience. Moderators and Cruz then bickered for a few seconds over his answer’s time limit. Huckabee overrode moderator John Harwood minutes later, going over his time limit to make several points about morality that elicited more loud applause.

Eventually, the pot boiled over when one hour into the debate, Carson flatly denied any involvement with the ethically-questioned nutritional supplement company Mannatech, calling the accusations, which were accurate, “total propaganda.” Carson acknowledged that he may have appeared on the company’s website, but denied involvement with it.

Moderator Carl Quintanilla quickly followed up by asking whether that fact was telling of Carson’s “vetting process” — and the crowd, without missing a beat, erupted into boos. The boos continued as CNBC went to its second commercial break of the night.

From there, the defining feature of the debate was the palpable anti-media and anti-moderator sentiment in the hall — criticism and chatter about the moderators filled the room during commercial breaks. Trump interrupted moderator Betty Quick before she could get a question out about Trump’s calling Rubio “Mark Zuckerberg’s personal senator” because of his support of the H-1B visa, claiming that he never said that. Quick responded with an incredulous question of where she would have otherwise gotten that information.

“Somebody’s really doing some bad fact-checking,” Trump said, which yet again went over well with the audience, despite Quick being correct as well. Huckabee’s flippant response to moderators on a question about Trump’s morals earned them more boos. Gov. Chris Christie received the longest ovation of the night for mocking as frivolous Quintanilla’s question on whether fantasy football should be federally regulated as gambling.

Candidates increasingly interrupted and talked over time limits during the second half of the debate, and it was clear that the moderators, by the end, had lost both control and their wits — Harwood capped off the night with a passive-aggressive reply to Trump’s closing comment, which asserted a kind of dominance over CNBC and claimed that his negotiations brought the debate time from three and a half hours down to two.

While Trump was only partly right — multiple candidates’ campaigns had influence, and CNBC did not push back much, as they reached an agreement in about one day — Harwood wrongly said it was always scheduled for that time, and the crowd booed a third and final time.

In a debate that approached staying in concrete terms and avoiding buzzwords early on, the conflict between candidates and moderators will likely be the largest takeaway, judging by Thursday’s coverage. Carly Fiorina’s repeated themes of how big government leads to socialism, Rubio’s appeals to hope and family, Huckabee’s moral pathos on not raising the Social Security retirement age and Christie’s repeated points about government stealing Americans’ money took the reins away from more concrete talk by Kasich, Bush, and Christie and Cruz to an extent, but that aspect is likely to be overshadowed.

It is also likely to draw attention away from flatly implausible points in last night’s debate, like Fiorina’s proposed idea of a three-page tax code (the code is currently over 73,000 pages) with no rationale as to how she would accomplish that.

“I think [the back and forth] serves as a distraction — the moments were more heated so it’s easier to remember them,” said Elizabeth Skewes, associate professor of journalism and media studies and attendee of the debate. “I mean, sadly, it makes it hard to remember the substantive parts.”

“You always expect them to say something to the moderators about fairness and time, but this was on a whole ‘nother level,” said Carly Silliman, a CU-Boulder student and attendee of the debate.

“I don’t often feel like you’re on the side of the candidates or the moderators when watching a debate — you’re usually on the side of one candidate or the other,” said Silliman, who studies broadcast production and political science. “The point of the moderator is to not really get involved… you’re not supposed to engage in a shouting match, which is what it felt like at times.

“The Huckabee ‘moral code’ question [about Trump’s morals] — that’s inciting an attack, and I’m not really about attack politics,” Silliman said.

Several of the moderators’ questions were seen as unreasonably negative or unfair by the candidates and by audience members.

“These questions come from places, though,” Skewes said. “Huckabee, for example, has criticized the morals of Hillary Clinton.”

“There’s the softball question like ‘What’s your position on student loans?’” Skewes said. “A question that has information attached to it can sound snarky, but if you’re going to lob softballs, you might as well just let the candidates give speeches.

“The president of the United States should be able to hold up against challenging questions… governing this country is tough,” Skewes continued, adding that candidates for president should be able to handle tough questions from the press.

“Naturally, with the way Boulder students react, I think it’s going to make them hate the GOP even more,” Silliman said. “Although I don’t disagree with why the candidates retaliated.”

“I think there’ll be some criticism [of the moderators] — there often is. I would hope that there’s also some analysis of which questions really got at who the candidates are, but seemed pointed, which could have been phrased differently and which were unnecessary,” Skewes said.

While this certainly is not the first time candidates have pushed back against moderators’ questions — Skewes said it is relatively common for Republican candidates in particular — the abundance of conflict in this debate stands out. Skewes also said that the first question directed to Trump aimed to get at legitimate issues, but was phrased poorly and offensively.

Multiple candidates’ campaigns called for changes in how the debates are conducted over phone calls to the RNC last night and today. Media criticism of CNBC’s moderators began almost immediately after the debate, coming from various outlets.

Skewes said that taking more questions from viewers via Facebook or Twitter could help the issue.

“It seemed like they didn’t want to be held accountable for things they said, and that’s unfortunate,” said Boneth Ahaneku, president of internal affairs for CU Student Government and a debate attendee. “If you’re commander in chief, you should be expected to be held accountable for everything [you] did.”

About Ellis Arnold

Ellis Arnold is the CUI's editor-in-chief and a journalism and political science student. He writes about diversity issues, politics, student government, music and (sometimes) life advice. Is he qualified to do that? You'll never know. He's a senior from Aurora, Colorado, who's been with the CUI for eight semesters.

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