Marco Rubio was the big winner Wednesday night in the third debate of Republican presidential hopefuls, according to a group of neutral observers who spoke to me shortly after the nationally-televised forum ended.
The same group — pundits, academics, and Republican political consultants—also concluded that Ted Cruz made significant strides with his debate performance. Almost the entire panel felt that Jeb Bush, who badly needed to jump-start his troubled campaign, clearly fell short of meeting the hopes of his supporters.
Almost precisely seconding Madonna’s view, Republican consultant Ford O’Connell concluded “Rubio had the best all-around performance. He pushed back Jeb Bush’s attempts to paint him as the GOP's version of Obama. If Rubio continues on this path he could become the insider's choice for the nomination and possibly the party's nominee.”
But O’Connell also hailed Cruz for his firm handling of the CNBC moderators and “his entitlement explanation, which showed that he is a realistic alternative to Trump and Carson for conservative insurgents.”
“Trump and Carson had sleepy nights,” O’Connell told me, “but neither went backward with respect to the polls. Remember, Trump didn't have to beat Rubio tonight, he just had to do better than Carson. And I think he did, but Carson's likability should not be discounted.