A defining moment arrived early in Wednesday's Republican presidential debate when Ohio Gov. John Kasich, fighting for traction, took a double-barreled blast at the "fantasy tax schemes" of rivals Donald Trump and Ben Carson.
With Carson now leading Trump in early polls, both reacted to Kasich in ways we're getting used to seeing.
Sourly and loudly, Trump dismissed Kasich and claimed he hit a fiscal jackpot in his state with the advent of natural-gas fracking.
Blandly and calmly, Carson defended his "flat-tax" plan as workable despite a dissection by CNBC moderator Becky Quick.
The two-hour debate among the top 10 candidates in the GOP field was billed as focusing on economic and fiscal topics. But of course it strayed into national security, immigration and all that is wrong with Democrats and each other.
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz even used up some of his time to solemnly claim media bias when asked a question about debt. Other familiar fallbacks from him and other candidates included shots at how business is done in Washington, D.C.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush had his moments of contention. When Florida Sen. Marco Rubio defended his absence from business at the Capitol by noting that it was typical of past presidential contenders, Bush piled on. Of the Senate, he asked, "What is it, like a French workweek?" Rubio shot back in part: "Someone has convinced you that attacking me is going to help you."
By the end, Bush said: "We need a unifier, not a cynical divider-in-chief. We are still the greatest country on earth."
By their format, quick exchanges in these debates can resist instant reality checks. Trump, for example, was asked about a critical statement he'd made regarding Mark Zuckerberg, co-founder of Facebook, regarding visa programs for foreign workers in Silicon Valley. Trump claimed he never made the remark. Asked where it came from, he said, "I don't know. You people write this stuff."
If you switched off the debate at that point -- with Quick clearly flummoxed -- you wouldn't have known that the moderator returned minutes later to report that the Zuckerberg slam was on Trump's own website. There, Trump referred to Rubio as Zuckerberg's "personal senator" whose bill to triple these visas "would decimate women and minorities."
Trump seemed put off when pressed on four casino companies he had that went bankrupt. He said Atlantic City casinos generally went bad, that he never filed for personal bankruptcy, and ultimately, "I used the laws of the country" to his benefit. "I'm sorry."
Later, he boasted of having persuaded CNBC to reduce the format from three hours to two. But moderator John Harwood said, "Just for the record, the debate was always going to be two hours."
Carson, who this week was deemed to be leading in early polls among Republicans, wrapped up his pitch by thanking "my colleagues for being civil" during the debate. He'd faced aggressive questioning, too, but fielded it differently. Pressed on a drugmaker who charged exorbitant prices, he replied, "No question, sometimes people go overboard trying to make a profit."
Others, of course, fought for attention as well.
When asked if the federal government should take a role in online fantasy football -- widely recognized as a form of sports betting -- Bush said the matter was "something that needs to be looked into." But he said somewhat awkwardly he had "no clue whether the federal government is the proper place" for that. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie fulminated at the question, concluding: "Let people play. Who cares?"
Former Hewlett-Packard chief executive Carly Fiorina defended her tenure there -- and repeated her theme that the need to shrink government comes up every election -- raising the question of who can actually get the job done.
Moving the needle is difficult for the candidates, and a couple of hours of prime-time exposure means a frenzy to make the most of it, even if it was on opposite the World Series. The results of these events are cumulative.
Earlier, in the second-tier debate, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina worked in some new zingers as he jockeyed with Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, ex-New York Gov. George Pataki and ex-Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum. He said of Democratic candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vermont): "He went to the Soviet Union on his honeymoon, and I don't think he ever came back."
Pataki sought to claim some time during a crossfire between two other candidates. "Let me try to get a word in here," he asserted. "They're talking over each other. They're used to that in Washington. I'm not."