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Third Debate Shakes Up Dynamic Of Republican Race


And we'll hear more about the debate and the presidential race from NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

Hi Mara.


SIEGEL: Plenty of criticism today aimed at the CNBC moderators for losing control of the Republican debate. Do you think that chaos works in favor of any of the candidates? Don's report leads us to believe the answer in the Bush campaign is certainly no.

LIASSON: Well, we don't know yet how that chaotic debate will affect the state of the race, but we do know the consensus of Democrats and Republicans who watch these things very carefully is that Bush, quote, "lost," as you just heard, and Rubio won, but what does that mean? Now, each candidate has a different definition of what a win or a good night means for him. And the reason people think Bush lost is because he needed a big moment, more than anyone else, to stop his donors from jumping ship. He's recently laid off staff, he's slashed salaries, and of course, you heard him in this awkward position now about insisting that his campaign is not on life support. Now, the person who conventional wisdom has dubbed the winner, Marco Rubio, was not only able to deftly swat away Bush's attacks last night, but he's also been able to use all the debates to showcase his talents. He's always on message, he looks very confident compared to his main rival, Bush, who seems a little awkward on the stage.

So the debate was very chaotic, and that gave a lot of opportunities for the candidates to bash the mainstream media and the moderators. That's always an applause line for Republicans. It's what gave Ted Cruz such a very good night last night. He's a classically trained college debater. You heard it last night where he listened carefully and attacked the moderators for things they had just said. He got the biggest cheers of the night. He raised a ton of money since the debate, and he scored on the instant polls and on Twitter. Also, Chris Christie, who barely made the cut to stay on the stage in the top 10 candidates, was very passionate last night and did himself some good too.

SIEGEL: It looks like Donald Trump and Ben Carson remain the two front runners. Neither man dominated the stage in Boulder last night. Do you think that matters?

LIASSON: Not for them. Carson's rise to the top was not because of his debate performances. Trump has seen his numbers slip a bit, but he's still on top. Both Carson and Trump did seem to fade into the background a bit last night, but neither of them needed a breakout moment so they both played it pretty safe.

SIEGEL: Mara, as you said, there were some jabs at the media that scored points both with the audience in Boulder and also at home. This was supposed to be a debate about economic policy. They complained for lack of substantive questions. Are they right?

LIASSON: Well, there - it was a debate about economic policy. Underneath all the chaos and the poorly worded questions, there was a lot of policy talk. The candidates talked about taxes, reforming entitlements, reforming the immigration system, but, let's face it, debates are theater. They're performance art. Which is not to say they're not important, they're not a think tank seminar. So voters are looking for someone with strength and confidence and a vision, and that's what, on a 10-person stage, the candidates are trying to find some moment that demonstrates that. It's what Trump was able to do in the first couple of them and what Rubio has been also able to do.

SIEGEL: The next GOP debate is less than two weeks. What are you watching for between now and then?

LIASSON: A couple of things. Can Rubio take a good performance and the fact that he's trending up in the polls and also in the online prediction markets, which is our new favorite metric this year? Can he turn all of that into money? He's had a surprisingly lackluster fundraising season. Can he build an infrastructure? Can he really step on the gas and do more on the ground in the early states?

My second question is about Bush. He's seen as faltering now, but his super PAC has a hundred million dollars. He's got a huge infrastructure in all the states through March. So we are now going to find out what those resources are actually worth.

And, speaking of conventional wisdom, the other thing I'm watching is will Trump and Carson fade, as many Republicans have been predicting, wrongly, for months? But if they do, will we get the race that many Republicans expected all along, which is a conservative candidate, maybe Cruz, versus an establishment candidate - Bush, or many people think Rubio. That's what the dynamic of the Republican race was supposed to be, but nothing has worked out according to plan this year.

SIEGEL: NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

Mara, thanks.

LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.