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3 winners and 3 losers from last night's Republican debate

Wednesday night's CNBC debate was a thrilling return to form for the GOP field. After CNN's dull, overlong September debate, the candidates had recovered the weird screwball energy that made the first Fox News debate in August so compelling. Ted Cruz declared war on the moderators, Jeb Bush declared war on Marco Rubio, Donald Trump declared war on the contents of his own campaign website — it was truly great TV.

It'll take a few days for poll results to trickle in, which will provide the closest thing to an objective answer of who actually won the debate. But in the meantime, here are the candidates, non-candidates, and abstract concepts that won and lost last night.

Winner 1: Marco Rubio

It's really odd that Rubio is still stuck in a distant third in Iowa and national polls. Based on how political scientists understand primary contests to work, he should be a frontrunner. He is acceptable to insiders but got elected as a Tea Partier, he's recruited many of the party's rising policy stars, and his youth, swing state background, and potential to appeal to Latino voters make him uniquely terrifying to Democrats. Pundits like Ross Douthat and our own Ezra Klein continue to predict that he's due for a surge, but it keeps not coming.

The CNBC debate, then, was a potential turning point. Rubio's main competition for becoming the establishment's favored candidate has always been Jeb Bush — and to Rubio's great fortune, Bush decided to take a swing at Rubio last night, assailing him for his low Senate attendance record during this campaign. Rubio was ready with a quick retort — "Jeb, let me tell you, I don't remember you ever complaining about John McCain's vote record. The only reason you're doing it now is because we're running for the same position" — that made Jeb look petty and let Rubio remain aloof:

Rubio also won plaudits from the crowd by battling CNBC moderator John Harwood over whether Rubio's tax plan helps the rich more than the poor. Harwood noted that the top 1 percent would get a much bigger tax break under Rubio's plan than the middle class — and used numbers from the conservative Tax Foundation, which Rubio himself has cited, to show it. Rubio deflected by claiming that the poorest Americans would benefit even more than the top 1 percent. Harwood had the better of this dispute on the merits. The Tax Foundation's numbers only show the poorest making out that well because they assumed that Rubio would establish a $2,000 basic income for all taxpayers, a policy from which Rubio's team distanced themselves in a subsequent email to Vox.

Of course, Rubio was also widely viewed as having won the second debate, and it wasn't enough to take him above Donald Trump or Ben Carson. So the media — myself included — might just be repeating a prediction that's failed in the past. But his victory last night was much clearer-cut, and if leads to Rubio mopping up much of Bush's support, it could make a real difference.

Winner 2: Ted Cruz

Just as many pundits assume Rubio will unite the establishment vote in the primary, there's growing speculation that Cruz could do the same among the base. The logic is straightforward. Cruz appeals to the same people that Donald Trump and Ben Carson do, but he's an actual senator, and thus a more viable-seeming nominee. And while people without any political experience have experienced boomlets in past primaries — Herman Cain in 2012, Steve Forbes in 1996 — they've never actually won major primaries. But hardcore conservatives with government experience — like Rick Santorum in 2012 or Mike Huckabee in 2008 or Pat Buchanan in 1996 — actually have won early primaries. And Cruz is running an unusually good campaign, with solid fundraising.

If the fundamentals are good, then, Cruz still needed a chance to actually reach and persuade base voters to come to his side. Last night provided that. While Trump failed to dominate the debate the way he dominated the first one, and Carson flailed, Cruz got a golden opportunity to attack the moderators. After a good question from Carl Quintanilla about why Cruz opposes the bipartisan budget deal reached this week, Cruz lashed out:

The questions that have been asked so far in this debate illustrate why the American people don't trust the media. This is not a cage match. You look at the questions — Donald Trump, are you a comic book villain? Ben Carson, can you do math? John Kasich, will you insult two people over here? Marco Rubio, why don't you resign? Jeb Bush, why have your numbers fallen? How about talking about the substantive issues?

Never mind that Quintanilla's question was a good one, or that the flat tax plan that Cruz spent much of the debate flacking is breathtakingly expensive and regressive. This is exactly the red meat Trump/Carson voters want to hear, and Cruz delivered it better than those two did:

Winner 3: The moderators

Here's the thing: While Rubio and Cruz won plaudits for attacking the moderators, the moderators actually did a good job. Their questions were tough and substantive. Here's Harwood's full question to Rubio:

The Tax Foundation, which was alluded to earlier, scored your tax plan and concluded that you give nearly twice as much of a gain in after-tax income to the top 1 percent as to people in the middle of the income scale. Since you're the champion of Americans living paycheck-to- paycheck, don't you have that backward?

It's concise, pointed, and generous, relying on a friendly think tank that Rubio himself likes. Here's Quintanilla's question to Cruz:

Senator Cruz. Congressional Republicans, Democrats and the White House are about to strike a compromise that would raise the debt limit, prevent a government shutdown and calm financial markets that fear of -- another Washington-created crisis is on the way. Does your opposition to it show that you're not the kind of problem-solver American voters want?

Is it opinionated? Of course. But the whole point of these debates is to get candidates to articulate and defend their opinions. Quintanilla was doing his job, and doing it well. As for the "Donald Trump, are you a comic book villain question" that Cruz mocked, what Harwood actually asked Trump was how he could defend his most preposterous campaign promises:

Mr. Trump, you've done very well in this campaign so far by promising to build a wall and make another country pay for it. Send 11 million people out of the country. Cut taxes $10 trillion without increasing the deficit. And make Americans better off because your greatness would replace the stupidity and incompetence of others. Let's be honest. Is this a comic book version of a presidential campaign?

That is a great question. Trump's pledges are unrealistic. They're extraordinary claims requiring extraordinary evidence, and Harwood was right to demand that evidence. Trump didn't provide it, though, instead grousing, "No, not a comic book, and it's not a very nicely asked question the way you say that."

Loser 1: Ben Carson

Carson had the most to lose going into tonight's debate. He's been beating Trump in Iowa for a while, and just overtook him nationally in a CBS/New York Times poll (though Trump still leads on average). He's the emerging — if likely temporary — frontrunner, and he needed to defend that position.

He failed to do that. For one thing, he had the only testy interaction with a moderator that seemed to make the candidate look worse. When Becky Quick challenged him on his past statements in support of a 10 percent flat tax, Carson looked flustered and was unable to respond in anything but vague generalities:

QUICK: Dr. Carson, let's talk about taxes. You have a flat tax plan of 10 percent flat taxes, and — I've looked at it — and this is something that is very appealing to a lot of voters, but I've had a really tough time trying to make the math work on this. If you were to took a 10 percent tax, with the numbers right now in total personal income, you're gonna come in with bring in $1.5 trillion. That is less than half of what we bring in right now. And by the way, it's gonna leave us in a $2 trillion hole. So what analysis got you to the point where you think this will work?

CARSON: Well, first of all, I didn't say that the rate would be 10 percent. I used the tithing analogy.

QUICK: I understand that, but if you look at the numbers you probably have to get to 28.

CARSON: The rate is gonna be much closer to 15 percent.

QUICK: 15 percent still leaves you with a $1.1 trillion hole.

CARSON: You also have to get rid of all the deductions and all the loopholes. You also have to some strategically cutting in several places.

Remember, we have 645 federal agencies and sub-agencies. Anybody who tells me that we need every penny and every one of those is in a fantasy world.

So, also, we can stimulate the economy. That's gonna be the real growth engine. Stimulating the economy — because it's tethered down right now with so many regulations...

QUICK: You'd have to cut government about 40 percent to make it work with a $1.1 trillion hole.

CARSON: That's not true.

QUICK: That is true, I looked at the numbers.

CARSON: When we put all the facts down, you'll be able to see that it's not true, it works out very well.

"That's not true" and "it works out very well" are not especially convincing counterarguments when confronted with hard numbers. His comments about cutting spending aren't convincing without specifics. And the loophole references aren't convincing considering that in 2014, Americans' total personal income was $14.7 trillion. Quick's estimate that a 10 percent tax would bring in $1.5 trillion were assuming no deductions at all.

He was also placed in the uncomfortable position of flip-flopping on ethanol subsidies. In the past, he'd expressed support for eliminating oil subsidies and redirecting them to ethanol: good politics in Iowa, but bad among base economic conservatives. "Well, first of all, I was wrong about taking the oil subsidy," he conceded. "I have studied that issue in great detail. And what I have concluded is that the best policy is to get rid of all government subsidies, and get the government out of our lives, and let people rise and fall based on how good they are." As flip-flop justifications go, it's not terrible, but it's not exactly a good thing to be unveiling at a debate.

As my colleague Jonathan Allen put it, "[Carson's] biggest weakness is that it's hard to envision him running the country." He did nothing Wednesday night to make that easier to imagine.

Loser 2: Donald Trump

"You're a loser baby…" Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Partially, Trump lost just by default, by Cruz and Rubio outshining him. And in his defense, he did get some good lines in. When Harwood critiqued his tax plan, Trump had an effective (if substance-free) rejoinder prepared:

HARWOOD: I talked to economic advisers who have served presidents of both parties. They said that you have as chance of cutting taxes that much without increasing the deficit as you would of flying away from that podium by flapping your arms.

TRUMP: Then you have to get rid of Larry Kudlow, who sits on your panel, who's a great guy, who came out the other day and said, I love Trump's tax plan.

And when Trump denied criticizing Mark Zuckerberg's support for high-skilled H-1B visas — even the criticism is literally on his website — he managed to make Becky Quick, his questioner, look like she lost the exchange:

QUICK: You had talked a little bit about Marco Rubio. I think you called him Mark Zuckerberg's personal senator because he was in favor of the H1B.

TRUMP: I never said that. I never said that.

QUICK: So this was an erroneous article the whole way around?

TRUMP: You've got another gentleman in Florida, who happens to be a very nice guy, but not...

QUICK: My apologies. I'm sorry.

But the Zuckerberg exchange was indicative of another thing happening Wednesday night: Trump trying to, in my colleague Dara Lind's words, "sand down everything that distinguished him from other Republicans on the signature issue of his campaign."

While the GOP base is skeptical of H-1B visas — Republicans "see it as a way for Big Business to import low-wage labor from abroad instead of helping American workers," Lind explains — and even Sen. Jeff Sessions, whom Trump has credited with inspiring his immigration plan, has criticized the program, Trump has nonetheless pivoted in favor. While he spent some time defending his plan for a wall, he spent relatively little time engaging in the kind of demagoguery about "illegals" that has sustained his campaign to date.

It signaled that Trump was trying to get serious and step away from the fringes — but it also suggested to his base that he might be just another establishment conservative, ready to flip-flop and back immigration as soon as he's elected. That's not an image that Trump can afford.

Loser 3: The future of the American tax code

But Christie's talking
Cruz and Paul, chief irresponsible tax braggers.
Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Throughout the night, in question after question, the moderators tried to get the candidates to defend their massively expensive, massively regressive tax proposals, preferably with references to real numbers. Instead they got vagaries and dodges, like Carson's, Rubio's, and Trump's above.

Even worse were the moment when candidates were allowed to champion the virtues of their plans without any pushback. Here's Cruz, on his ludicrous plan to institute a 10 percent flat tax and abolish payroll taxes:

CRUZ: Becky, if you want a 10 percent flat tax where the numbers add up, I rolled out my tax plan today, you can find it on line at tedcruz.org. It is a simple flat tax where for individuals, a family of four pays nothing on the first $36,000.

After that you pay 10 percent as a flat tax going up. The billionaire and the working man, no hedge fund manager pays less than his secretary.

On top of that, there is a business flat tax of 16 percent. Now that applies universally to giant corporations that with lobbyists right now are not paying taxes, and as small business.

And you wanted to know the numbers, the Tax Foundation, which has scored every one of our plans, shows that this plan will allow the economy to generate 4.9 million jobs, to raise wages over 12 percent, and to generate 14 percent growth.

And it costs, with dynamic scoring, less than a trillion dollars. Those are the hard numbers. And every single income decile sees a double-digit increase in after-tax income.

QUICK: Senator — Senator, thank you.

All of this is ridiculous. The "business flat tax" is in fact a sales tax. Corporations won't pay it; consumers will. The Tax Foundation's numbers are absurdly optimistic, and few reputable economists trust them. Yet this all passed without comment. I don't blame Quick. She had just got done interrogating Carson on the same point, and she had to move on. But Cruz's willingness to just stand there and spin a hugely expensive, hugely regressive plan as though it's affordable and progressive was remarkable.

Rand Paul then joined in, and Cruz leaped right in after him:

PAUL: All right. Much of the discussion is centered over whether or not the different tax plans help, or affect the middle class. In fact, it's the chief argument by democrats against many of the different flat tax proposals. Mine is unique in the sense that my tax plan actually gets rid of the payroll tax as well. It shifts it to the business, and it would allow middle class people to get a tax cut.

If you just cut their income tax, there isn't much income tax to cut. Mine actually cuts the payroll tax, and I think it would spread the tax cut across all socioeconomic levels, and would allow then it to be something that would be broadly supported by the public in an election.

QUINTANILLA: Senator, thank you.

CRUZ: Let me say on that...

QUINTANILLA: Oh, no, no, no...

CRUZ: ...Rand is exactly right. His plan is a good plan, and I will note that my 10 percent plan also eliminates the payroll tax, eliminates the death tax,

QUINTANILLA: ...Ok...

CRUZ: ...eliminates the business...

MALE: (INAUDIBLE)

CRUZ: ...income tax...

MALE: What are you doing?

CRUZ: ...10% flat rate...

QUINTANILLA: ...We're going to go to...

CRUZ: ...is the lowest personal rate any candidate up here has, and what it would also enable us to do is for every citizen to fill out their taxes on a postcard so we can eliminate the IRS.

It was like an auction: "I have a 14.5 percent flat tax!" "I have a 10 percent flat tax!" "Do I hear 8 percent?" This is not how serious discussions of public finances are conducted — especially because Cruz and Paul are bragging about the progressive implications of replacing the payroll tax, which is regressive, with a VAT, which is as regressive, if not more so. Because they spin the VAT as a tax on business, they make it sound like they're sticking to corporations.

Bonus loser: Jeb Bush

See Rubio. But can you really lose when you've already lost?

VIDEO: At least Jeb is winning in fantasy football