Candidates sharpen approaches in third GOP debate

“If this country does not keep its promise to seniors, then what promise can this country be trusted to hold?”

— Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee

“You find me a Democrat for cutting spending 10 dollars,I’ll give ‘em a warm kiss.”

— Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush

“I do carry on occasion, sometimes a lot. I like to be unpredictable.”

— Businessman Donald Trump, speaking about conceal carry

“This is how socialism starts: Government causes a problem, then government steps in to solve the problem.”

— Carly Fiorina

The voice of a flummoxed, fearful Republican establishment was channeled by Ohio Gov. John Kasich in Wednesday night’s presidential debate in reaction to the nontraditional candidates who have dominated the race.

“Folks, we’ve got to wake up,” Kasich said. “We cannot elect somebody that doesn’t know how to do the job.”

He was referring to billionaire Donald Trump and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who reside at the top of the polls as GOP voters’ summer romance with political newcomers extends into the chill of autumn.

The two men at the center of Wednesday’s third debate on the campus of the University of Colorado found themselves under new scrutiny as the winter’s primary votes grow nearer, and senators and governors continue to struggle for air.

After Kasich derided Trump’s plan to “ship 10 million people out of this country,” Trump found solace in his favorite spot: polls.

“His poll numbers tanked — that’s why he’s on the end” of the stage, Trump said of Kasich. “And he got nasty. So you know what? You can have him.”

But Trump’s own poll numbers have slipped in comparison with Carson, whose calm bedside manner has helped propel him to the lead in crucial Iowa and in a national survey this week.

“I will not be engaging in (saying) awful things about my compatriots here,” Carson vowed. In response to Kasich’s accusation that his tax plan is “fantasy,” Carson said a flat tax close to 15 percent would not bust the deficit if deductions were eliminated and government spending slashed.

Carson faced some of the toughest questioning Wednesday but never lost his cool. On gay rights, he said the "PC police" unfairly equate disagreeing with same-sex marriage with being a "homophobe." He distanced himself from controversial medical supplement company Mannatech, and he played to a crowd that booed CNBC moderator Carl Quintanilla.

Aside from attempts to needle the polling front-runners, a Florida feud boiled over between former Gov. Jeb Bush and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio. Longtime friends and allies, both are seeking the same establishment lane of the electorate.

Bush decided to directly take on Rubio for missing Senate votes, even in the “French workweek” of three to four days in Washington. “You should be showing up to work,” Bush said. If not, “just resign and let somebody else take the job.”

Rubio, who has taken heat for missed votes for months, was well-prepared.

He made reference to the Bush campaign’s financial struggles, leading it to slash staff and expenses last week. And he pointed out that Bush is now comparing himself to 2008 GOP nominee John McCain, who missed plenty of Senate votes.

“I don’t remember you ever complaining about John McCain’s vote record,” Rubio told Bush. “The only reason why you’re doing it now is we’re running for the same position and someone has convinced you that attacking me is going to help you.”

But the candidates joined forces to attack Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton and, more often, the CNBC moderators — joined by a partisan crowd that often booed the questions.

Texas U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz pulled a page from the Newt Gingrich 2012 playbook and attacked the moderators for questions that focused on stoking attacks, dredging up negatives from the candidates’ records and, in the case of John Harwood, accusing Trump of running a “comic book version of a presidential campaign.”

“How about talking about the substantive issues people care about?” Cruz said to loud applause.

Other candidates joined in, in the face of sometimes awkward questioning.

“The Democrats have the ultimate super PAC. It’s called the mainstream media,” Rubio said.

“Do you want me to answer, or do you want to answer?” New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie sparred with Harwood, to cheers.

As the GOP field remains the most sprawling in modern history, four candidates who did not make the top 10 in polling to reach the main stage debated earlier in the evening. They mostly avoided internecine swipes, and even those were mild. Former Pennsylvania U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum critiqued Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal's tax plan, saying it would blow up the deficit.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., took a prepared jab or two at Trump, but he was pushed on his support for immigration reform, among other departures from the GOP base. “Are you in the wrong party’s debate?” Quintanilla asked at one point.

Graham found his footing and was feistiest on his hawkish foreign policy — the animating feature of his long-shot campaign.

“The party’s over for all the dictators,” Graham said. “Make me commander in chief and this crap stops.”