GOP debate winners and losers

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With less than three weeks left before the Iowa caucuses, Republican presidential candidates clashed for the sixth time on a debate stage Thursday night in North Charleston, S.C. 

There was controversy even before the debate started. Sen. Rand PaulRand PaulLawmaker seeks to investigate Obama's foreign tax compliance law Funding bill rejected as shutdown nears GOP senators hit FBI on early probe of NY bombing suspect MORE (Ky.) staged a boycott rather than face relegation to the “undercard” clash earlier in the evening — which, in the end, was dominated by businesswoman Carly Fiorina.  

But that controversy was soon forgotten amid fiery exchanges between the top-flight contenders that filled the airwaves for more than two hours during the main event. 

As the smoke clears, who can savor the night and who was left licking their wounds? 

WINNERS 

Sen. Ted CruzTed CruzFour states sue to stop internet transition House approves stopgap funding, averting costly shutdown Overnight Tech: TV box plan faces crucial vote | Trump transition team to meet tech groups | Growing scrutiny of Yahoo security MORE (Texas) and businessman Donald TrumpDonald TrumpClinton gets ‘little kick’ in post-debate polls CNN graphic asks: Why is Gary Johnson still in the race? Trump: Debate was rigged MORE 

The verbal tussles between Cruz and Trump dominated the first half of the debate and provided the lion’s share of the evening’s most memorable moments.  

The fight ended in a kind of honorable draw, with each man winning his share of rounds. But the overall effect was to underline the duo’s status as the big beasts overshadowing the rest of the field.

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Cruz got off to a faster start than Trump, lambasting President Obama for having failed to even mention the 10 U.S. sailors who were taken into Iranian custody shortly before his State of the Union address on Tuesday evening.  

Cruz also hit out at The New York Times — always a popular move in front of a Republican audience — in the wake of the news organization’s revelation on Wednesday evening that he had not correctly documented a loan from Goldman Sachs, where his wife Heidi works, in his 2012 Senate campaign. 

Perhaps Cruz’s most effective attack of all came when he hit back at Trump for raising questions over his eligibility to become president because of his Canadian birth. He said that Trump had expressed no concern about this point in comments back in September, adding “since September, the Constitution hasn’t changed, but the poll numbers have.”  

During the same exchange, he appeared to get under Trump’s skin by raising the issue of the business mogul’s mother having been born in Scotland. 

Trump, however, had his strongest moment soon afterward. Cruz appeared to over-reach as he reiterated earlier criticisms of Trump for embodying “New York values.” Cruz said that those values had a “focus around money and the media” — a phrase that sparked considerable discussion on social media — and were synonymous with social liberalism. 

Trump responded by invoking the memory of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. "When the World Trade Center came down, I saw something that no place on Earth could have handled more beautifully, more humanely than New York," Trump said, being met with applause — including from Cruz himself.

Later in the debate, Trump once again took pride in his willingness to offend some sensibilities. Asked by Fox Business Network moderator Maria Bartiromo whether he would like to "rethink" his call for a temporary ban on Muslims entering the United States, he replied firmly, “No.” 

Overall, this was a more energetic Trump than has been seen in some recent debates, and at times he and Cruz engaged in a kind of Marvin Hagler-Thomas Hearns verbal slugfest. Even if neither of them get the upper hand over each other, they separated themselves from the rest of the field.  

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie 

Christie did not command the spotlight as much as Trump or Cruz, but he had a good night nonetheless.  

Christie has shone in almost all of the debates, his pugnacity helping him to come back from near-death, politically-speaking. He has been on the rise in New Hampshire polls. 

The contours of Christie’s debating style are clear by now — he reminds voters of his role as an executive and his previous experience as a federal prosecutor; asserts that he would be the most effective general election opponent against Democratic front-runner Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonClinton gets ‘little kick’ in post-debate polls CNN graphic asks: Why is Gary Johnson still in the race? Trump: Debate was rigged MORE, and disparages GOP rivals from the Senate as mere talkers, rather than doers.

All those tactics were on display again on Thursday evening. But Christie also has a fluency in blunt vernacular that can be formidably effective with GOP voters even as it raises liberal hackles. 

At one point, he looked forward to a moment when Republicans kick Obama’s “rear end out of the White House.” Later, when Marco RubioMarco RubioOpposition to Obama's radical disarmament agenda has proven effective Independent candidate sues to get on Florida Senate debate stage Rubio ‘deeply concerned’ by Trump’s Cuba business MORE tried to interject as Christie spoke, the New Jerseyan swatted him aside, saying, “You already had your chance, Marco, and you blew it.” 

MIXED 

Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) 

Rubio is always going to be a proficient debater, but he struggled for long stretches to impose himself on Thursday night. 

Especially in the debate’s opening phases, he was relegated to the periphery as Trump and Cruz went after each other with vigor. Rubio also tangled with Christie on several occasions and mostly came off the worse, albeit while avoiding any real gaffes.  

Rubio’s best moment by far came in the debate’s closing minutes, when he attacked Cruz for flip-flopping, principally on immigration but also on other issues. He seemed to genuinely discomfit Cruz, whose response drew some boos in the auditorium.  

Still, Rubio needs to be seen as one of the Big Three in the field, alongside Trump and Cruz. Too often on Thursday, he instead faded into the background.  

LOSERS 

Dr. Ben Carson 

Another bad night for Carson.  

The retired neurosurgeon’s unusually casual debating style worked for him at the start of this cycle, but ever since his poll ratings nose-dived after terrorist attacks in Paris and California, it has come to seem more like a millstone than an asset. 

Carson’s biggest problem is that he lacks authority and ease, especially on matters of foreign policy. “There is no question that [the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria] is a very serious problem,” he acknowledged at the beginning of one answer — before meandering through some rather vague details on what to do about it.  

Carson’s campaign was in upheaval amid staffing turmoil before Thursday’s debate. He may not be able to reverse the slide. 

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush 

There was nothing disastrous about Bush’s performance; it simply wasn’t as good as was needed for a man mired in single digits in polls and desperately in need of some catalyst to transform his fortunes.  

The wonkish, hesitant side of Bush reappeared in North Charleston after a much stronger performance in last month’s GOP debate in Las Vegas.  

Bush did sometimes go on the attack but even his body language often evinces a degree of discomfort in doing so.

He stood by an earlier comment that Trump was “unhinged” yet said he understood why his supporters backed him. Late in the debate, a jab at Rubio and Cruz as “two backbench senators” also fell flat. 

Ohio Gov. John Kasich 

Kasich has been rising in some polls in New Hampshire, but he has been an uneven debater throughout this cycle. His one strong performance was months ago, on his home turf of Ohio, and Thursday was a poor night for him. Like Bush, he committed no real gaffes, but he delivered no memorable moments, either. He needed more.