Republican 2016 debate: Winners and losers in five key fights

Donald Trump smirks next to Ben Carson and Marco Rubio. Image copyright Getty Images

There was a whiff of desperation in the air - along with the sizzle of political pyrotechnics - as Republican candidates took the stage for Wednesday night's presidential debate on cable news network CNBC.

Fewer than 100 days remain until the first votes are cast in Iowa, and if one of the many candidates languishing in the polls is going to make a move, time is running out.

Although the debate stretched for more than two hours, its lasting importance can likely be distilled down to the outcome of five key confrontations - and who came out on top.

John Kasich v Donald Trump and Ben Carson

Media captionMr Kasich decried the "fantasy" tax plans of rivals

Ohio Governor John Kasich - who recently expressed disgust with the state of the Republican race - was an early aggressor, taking thinly veiled shots at both Donald Trump and Ben Carson and their "fantasy" budget plans.

"Folks, we've got to wake up," he said. "We cannot elect somebody that doesn't know how to do the job."

The responses from the two front-running outsider candidates perfectly illustrated their different temperaments and campaign styles.

Carson had earlier said he would "not be engaging in awful things about my compatriots here" and stuck with it, ignoring the governor's jabs.

Trump, of course, shot back, noting the governor was going on the attack because his poll numbers have "tanked", resulting in his position on the end of the stage.

"He got nasty," Trump said. "So you know what? You can have him."

Winner: Trump won the battle, blunting Kasich's attack in his dismissive style, but Carson likely won the war. The retired neurosurgeon offered a third-straight somnambulant debate performance, which means he'll probably be the undisputed frontrunner when the next polls come out.

Marco Rubio v Jeb Bush

Media captionJeb Bush: "You should be showing up to work"

It was the Florida showdown everyone has been waiting for. After Rubio parried away a question about missing more than 60 Senate votes while campaigning for president, Bush went on the attack, likening the ease of Senate duties to a "French work week".

"Marco, when you signed up for this, this was a six-year term, and you should be showing up to work," he said. "You can campaign, or just resign and let someone else take the job."

Like a judo master, however, Rubio sent the assault back from whence it came.

The only reason Bush was coming after him, Rubio said, is because "we're running for the same position, and someone has convinced you that attacking me is going to help you."

After that blow, Rubio sought the high ground.

"My campaign is going to be about the future of America," he said. "It's not going to be about attacking anyone else on this stage. I will continue to have tremendous admiration and respect for Governor Bush."

In the very next question, Bush was asked to explain his sinking poll numbers and floundering campaign. It was a devastating few minutes for Bush and likely has more than a few major media outlets freshening up the former governor's political obituaries.

How hard do the French work?

Winner: Rubio, relentlessly on message throughout, won this exchange and likely had the best overall performance of the evening.

Ted Cruz v CNBC

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If there was a clear kill shot on Wednesday night, it came when Ted Cruz turned on the CNBC debate moderators with unrestrained gusto.

"The questions that have been asked so far in this debate illustrate why the American people don't trust the media," he said.

"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?"

He added that nobody believed that any of the moderators have any intention of voting in a Republican primary.

Despite two obvious ironies - that Cruz gave that answer in response to a substantive question about the debt limit and one of the CNBC questioners is widely credited with inspiring the conservative grass-roots Tea Party movement - the audience erupted with the loudest cheers of the evening.

Winner: If Rubio wasn't the clear winner of the debate, it's only because Cruz offered an equally compelling performance. Other candidates would follow suit in media-bashing, but Cruz got there first - and with the most memorable lines.

Mike Huckabee v Chris Christie

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At one point during the evening's festivities, a debate over an actual issue almost broke out, as former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee and New Jersey Governor Christie traded words on reforming the government-run Social Security retirement programme.

After Christie issued his oft-repeated call for means-testing government benefits, Huckabee made his move.

"This is a matter not of math; this is a matter of morality," he said. "If this country does not keep its promise to seniors, then what promise can this country hope to be trusted to keep?"

Christie replied that politicians should tell the elderly the truth and not some "fantasy".

"It isn't their money anymore, Mike, they stole it," he said. "The government stole it and spent it a long time ago."

Winner: The audience - at least for once. Much of the debate descended into chaos, as the CNBC moderators struggled to control the candidates, but here was a clear exchange of contrasting views. Huckabee burnished his appeal to older voters that are the backbone of his support, while Christie had an opportunity to flaunt his "tell it like it is" persona.

Bush v Christie

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It didn't get any better for Bush later in the debate, when he was asked what his views were on the largely unregulated daily fantasy sports gambling, which has become mired in controversy.

He started boasting about the performance in fantasy football, ticking off some of his better-performing players and forgetting a cardinal rule - no one likes to hear people talk about how their fantasy team is doing. He then called for further study of the gambling issue.

"This is something that needs to be looked at in terms of regulation," Bush said. "Effectively, it's day trading without any regulation at all."

At that point Christie chimed in with an impassioned answer that stood in stark contrast with Bush's lead-footed response.

"Are we really talking about daily fantasy football?" he said. "We have $19 trillion in debt, we have people out of work, we have ISIS and al-Qaeda attacking us, and we're talking about fantasy football?"

Winner: Christie, with ease. Bush's fantasy team may be undefeated, but this debate is another mark in the loss column for the beleaguered Florida ex-governor.