South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham was again the strongest, most confident debater on the stage Wednesday, as four low-polling candidates sought to impress in CNBC's undercard face-off.
Graham earned big cheers for his criticism of Democrats, declared President Obama "incompetent," and generally seemed to be the only candidate in control, either talking over or joking with the moderators, and tossing out seemingly candid one-liners.
"Bernie Sanders went to the Soviet Union on his honeymoon and he never came back."'
"Bernie Sanders went to the Soviet Union on his honeymoon and he never came back," Graham quipped, earning among the loudest cheers of the night.
But Graham didn't just deliver lighthearted one-liners; he also seized every opportunity to offer hawkish talk about the military and terrorist threats -- a notably heavy-handed approach given the night's economic theme.
"Make me commander-in-chief and this crap stops!" he said, decrying the president's foreign policy.
Despite an hour of debating, the four candidates who poll in the low single-digits struggled to emerge from the crowd, rendering it unlikely any will be boosted by their performances as Carly Fiorina was in August.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal was the stage's wonk; he vowed to "absolutely" do for America what he did in Louisiana. When asked about inheriting a nearly $1 billion surplus and currently having a projected $1.6 billion deficit, Jindal pushed back against moderators, saying they were using an "old number." He stressed that his budget was balanced and taxes had been cut, though Republicans in his state say otherwise.
Jindal also claimed repeatedly that he's the only candidate to have cut the size of government -- a statement PolitiFact ranked Half True -- earning the criticism of former New York State Gov. George Pataki, who reminded Jindal that he, too, had cut government.
“To change Washington, you have to understand how government works. You can’t just be someone who throws stones at Washington.'
Pataki portrayed himself as conservative who was able to get things done across party aisles, and explained how he would unite D.C.
"To change Washington, you have to understand how government works. You can't just be someone who throws stones at Washington," Pataki said.
Despite being a runner-up in 2012, Santorum appeared insecure, often seemingly searching for the right words.
"You need a conservative who can deliver and that's what I've done," he said early in the debate. But on the economy, the governors clearly had the advantage with their experience handling state budgets.