ANALYSIS: At Messy Debate, Republican Establishment Fails to Strike Back

PHOTO: Republican presidential candidatesPlayMark J. Terrill/AP Photo
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If the Republican Party has a path out of its extended Trump moment, it didn’t find it at the third GOP debate of the election cycle.

Wednesday night’s debate was as chaotic as the race it was designed to help sort out. A race that features two outsiders on top saw a group of veteran politicians squabble among themselves and take on the media as a group, with little apparent clarity imposed on the race.

In its broadest strokes, the debate marked an attempt by members of the party establishment to reclaim the nominating process from forces they’ve struggled to understand and adjust to.

But nobody on stage seemed to connect in a way that would change the dynamics that have Donald Trump and Ben Carson leading a field of veteran elected office holders.

Jeb Bush and John Kasich started with a double-barreled attack on Trump.

“It troubles me that we are rewarded for tearing people down,” said Bush.

“This stuff is fantasy,” said Kasich, incorporating Carson into his critique. “We gotta wake up. We cannot elect somebody who doesn’t know how to do the job.”

Trump responded with insults, as Trump does. But a bigger moment might have come when Bush criticized his protégé, Marco Rubio, taking on a different, generational force that’s a challenge to his candidacy.

“You can campaign - just resign and let somebody else take the job,” Bush said of Rubio's missed Senate votes, the master on the attack.

The apprentice, though, shut that down: “Someone convinced you attacking me is going to help you,” Rubio said.

It fell to Ted Cruz to try to reclaim the debate that started going in odd directions, by attacking CNBC's moderators – and finally finding some GOP unity in the process.

“This is not a cage match,” Cruz said, to as big a round of applause as any candidate earned.

Strong moments punctuated the debate for Rubio and Cruz, as well as a blunt and direct Chris Christie, and Carly Fiorina, who continues to perform best when the most viewers are watching.

But the debate was filled with missed –- and sometimes awkward –- opportunities for several candidates who were once assumed to dominate the race. Bush’s telegraphed attack on Rubio didn’t have the desired effect of throwing the younger Floridian off his stride.

Later, an odd Bush formulation came when he offered a “warm kiss” to any Democrat who would commit to cutting spending $10.

The Republican race is arguably wider open than at any point since Trump rode his escalator into the race, some four-plus months ago.

For the night, though, Carson and Trump were winning by not losing. The forces that might derail them were too diffuse to do them real damage. And it’s possible viewers saw even more of the appeal of outsiders in this political climate.

If there’s a bright spot for the Republican Party, it’s that it is possible to find party unity – in attacking the media.

Rubio and Cruz had some of their best-received lines on that topic. Trump managed to shut down a line of sharp questioning on immigration by simply questioning its premise.

At one point, Carson cracked a smile when a moderator’s persistence drew boos.

“See, they know,” Carson said.