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3 winners and 3 losers from the fifth Republican debate

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Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

Tuesday night's CNN Republican debate was perhaps the most entertaining installment since the first Fox News debate in August. Donald Trump and Jeb Bush's weird personal issues with each other went from subtext to explicit, brutal text. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz went at it over the 2013 immigration battle. Ben Carson compared bombing Syria to removing a brain tumor from a small child.

We won't know who "really" won until poll results trickle in. But in the meantime, here are the candidates who ended the night better off than they started it — and the ones who slipped.

Winner: Donald Trump

It's a good time to be Donald Trump. While he's fallen a point behind Ted Cruz in Iowa, he remains ahead by double digits in New Hampshire and South Carolina. Nationally, he's doing as well as he ever has, with the two most recent polls showing leads of 23 and 27 points respectively. What he needed tonight was a) to not be embarrassed, and b) for no one else onstage to break out in dramatic fashion.

He accomplished both, and then some. Bush and Rand Paul both unleashed attacks in his direction, and he deflected both in grand fashion. Bush he dispatched with all the ruthless efficiency and contempt of a schoolyard bully. I mean that as a compliment — if not of Trump the person, then of Trump the candidate. I mean, just look at this:

Trump: You're a tough guy, Jeb. I know.

Bush: You're never going to be president of the United States by insulting your way…

Trump: I'm at 42, and you're at 3. So far I'm doing better. You started over here [gestures next to himself in the center of the stage]. You're moving over further and further. Pretty soon you're going to be off the end.

It was, in one sense, a perfect illustration of Bush's point: Trump was replying to an accusation that relies on insults and bullying with … insults and bullying. But it successfully made Bush look pathetic and small. And some GOP viewers weren't buying Bush's shtick at all:

Same goes for Trump's exchange with Rand Paul, who assailed Trump's comments about "closing up the internet in some way" as an assault on Americans' freedoms:

Of course, Trump has been proposing policies — mass deportation, a Muslim immigration ban, etc. — that increase state power at the expense of individual liberties for this entire campaign. It's worked because it's always tied to the idea that civil libertarians are dangerous naifs and that only by getting unconstitutionally "tough" can the US compete. And so that was how Trump replied to Paul's criticisms:

TRUMP: And as far as the Internet is concerned, we're not talking about closing the Internet. I'm talking about parts of Syria, parts of Iraq, where ISIS is, spotting it.

Now, you could close it. What I like even better than that is getting our smartest and getting our best to infiltrate their Internet, so that we know exactly where they're going, exactly where they're going to be. I like that better. [MIXED APPLAUSE/BOOS]

But we have to -- who would be -- I just can't imagine somebody booing. These are people that want to kill us, folks, and you're -- you're objecting to us infiltrating their conversations? I don't think so. I don't think so.

Sure enough, Frank Luntz's focus group liked that too:

"Every candidate who attacks Trump fails": This has been the dynamic all campaign. As long as it persists, Trump stays on top. And nothing that happened tonight changed that dynamic.

Winner: Ted Cruz

These are also auspicious times for new Iowa frontrunner Ted Cruz. Not only is he the only non-Trump candidate with real upward momentum in the polls, but establishment social conservatives are rallying behind him in droves in an early sign that the GOP establishment might be willing to get past Senate Republicans' annoyance with Cruz and accept him as a less horrifying alternative to Trump.

Cruz didn't give the most coherent performance in the world. At one point he demonstrated that he has basically no idea what the term "carpet bombing" means:

BLITZER: To be clear, senator Cruz, would you carpet bomb Raqqa, where there are a lot of civilians? Yes or no.

CRUZ: You would carpet bomb where ISIS is. The location of the troops. You use air power directed. But the object isn't to level a city, the object is to kill the ISIS terrorists. To make it, listen, ISIS is gaining strength because the perception is that they're winning. And President Obama fuels that perception.

As my colleague Zack Beauchamp notes, this is 100 percent pure nonsense. "Carpet bombing" means the mass, indiscriminate bombing of populated areas — think the US conventional attacks on Japanese and German cities during World War II. You can't do "directed" carpet bombing. That's just normal bombing, and Obama's already doing it. Cruz was doing, in Beauchamp's words, "pure tough guy positioning."

But the Republican base sure seems to love pure tough guy positioning. It allows a combination of nationalistic disinterest in overly complex interventions with hyper-hawkish rhetoric in the cases where the base does want to intervene. Cruz doesn't just promise to somehow bomb the hell out of ISIS without killing more civilians than Obama already has.

In the debate, he promised an "America first" foreign policy, in a hopefully unintentional echo of the Charles Lindbergh–backed, Germany-sympathetic anti-war movement in the late 1930s and early 1940s. He wants to kill the bad guys but not waste time on this cuddly "democracy promotion" nonsense the way Bush did. It's a brilliant way of channeling anti-ISIS fervor without having to defend the last time America did a massive intervention to dislodge a regime we didn't like in Mesopotamia.

Even better was Cruz's exchange with Marco Rubio on immigration. Cruz repeatedly hit Rubio for his support of a pathway to citizenship, and Rubio had what he thought was an airtight rejoinder: When the Senate was debating the bipartisan immigration reform bill that Rubio helped craft, Cruz proposed an amendment that would repeal the pathway to citizenship but still allow some unauthorized immigrants to obtain legal status. Cruz didn't directly respond to that point, instead hammering home the point that Rubio wanted amnesty and Cruz fought against it.

Now, Cruz did sponsor that amendment. You could make an argument that his sponsorship of it indicates that he once supported legal status — or you could note that many around Cruz insist the amendment was meant as a poison pill to reduce Democratic support and kill the bill as a whole. It more or less doesn't matter. What mattered is that Rubio gave Cruz a big chunk of the debate in which to remind base voters of the one issue where they don't trust Rubio at all, and to remind them that Cruz was on their side when it counted.

Winner: Hillary Clinton

If you asked Hillary Clinton to rank her preferred general election opponents in order, odds are that Cruz and Trump would top the list. Trump is a candidate almost tailor-made to energize Latino turnout and turn the demographic even more strongly pro-Democratic. And Cruz has most of Trump's substantive liabilities, plus he's proposed a massive 16 percent sales tax on everything. Both of them are extremely potent boogeymen to get base Democrats enraged/energized. And neither has the ability to make inroads with young and Latino voters that Marco Rubio has.

And so when Trump and Cruz win a debate, Clinton implicitly wins the debate as well. She's getting exactly the Republican primary she wants, and it shows no signs of getting worse for her anytime soon.

Loser: Marco Rubio

GOP Presidential Candidates Debate In Las Vegas
Not a great night for Marco.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Pundits have been expecting Marco Rubio to break out and become the Republican frontrunner for most of the primary cycle at this point. Once Jeb Bush began floundering, badly, Rubio seemed naturally positioned to pick up establishment Republican support, and given that the party elites allegedly decide nominations, that ought to be enough to give him the nod.

But it just. Keeps. Not. Happening. Rubio's seen some modest polling growth but is still a distant third to Trump and Cruz in Iowa and a distant second to Trump in New Hampshire. And his campaign strategy looks like a disaster. He has fewer New Hampshire staffers than Trump, Bush, or Carson. He's spent less time in that state than any major candidate save Carson. Privately, local activists grumble that Rubio's not doing much to solicit endorsements.

Rubio's doing ads, and some argue that his lack of ground game isn't important. Maybe. But if national TV exposure is supposed to save him, then Rubio's going to have to start doing better in debates than he did Tuesday night. His scuffle with Cruz only served to emphasis his own key weakness: immigration. And both Cruz and Paul got in some shots at Rubio for his opposition to the USA Freedom Act, which bans mass collection of customer data such as phone records. A Rubio-aligned Super PAC has run ads attacking Cruz for supporting the USA Freedom Act, saying Cruz voted to "weaken national security."

Cruz called the Rubio camp attacks "Alinskyite," in a conscious nod to the late community organizer who's become a key villain in Tea Party mythology. It's exactly the kind of attack that plays well to a conservative cable news audience, which has heard Fox News anchors rail against Saul Alinsky for years. Paul smartly pivoted to immigration immediately, further emphasizing Rubio's main weakness: "Marco has opposed at every point increased security — border security for those who come to our country":

Cruz and Paul intended to depict Rubio as a heretic, one who's particularly unserious on immigration. They also wanted to defuse one of his apparent key advantages: his reputation as a hardcore hawk on national security. Cruz and Paul accomplished those goals, while Rubio came out looking less like a consensus conservative pick and more like John Kasich: an establishmentarian whom base voters can't trust.

Loser: Jeb Bush

In a sense, every day that Jeb Bush continues to pretend that he might be president is a day he's losing. But this was a particularly sad showing. Bush clearly thought that attacking Donald Trump as unserious, as a "chaos candidate" who'd be a "chaos president," was what he needed to do to make inroads. His campaign even blasted out a precooked "chaos candidate" meme during the debate:

It sort of worked the first time, but the second time Bush tried to tell Trump he couldn't "insult his way" to the presidency, Trump saw the situation for what it was: an opportunity to insult this whiny, entitled WASP who thinks the presidency is his birthright and that Trump, and implicitly his supporters too, are unserious and unworthy of influence. So Trump pointed out that he's beating the living shit out of Bush under every conceivable metric and left it at that. He even added some sarcastic mocking of Bush's macho posturing: "Oh, I know. You're a tough guy, Jeb. I know."

Here's how that all came across to Luntz's focus group:

"Weak, desperate, whiny" basically covers it.

Loser: Ben Carson

Carson briefly looked like a serious threat to Trump, but since October he's slid back from first place in Iowa to fourth. Media attention has moved on to Ted Cruz. One of Carson's main appeals — his perceived honesty relative to a field of career politicians and, y'know, Donald Trump — collapsed when it became clear that Carson's been fibbing about at least some aspects of his biography for years. And with his initial rise looking like a fluke, it's unclear what he could do to get back on top.

His appearance Tuesday night didn't seem like the kind of thing that could halt that slide. His answer on North Korea was unintentionally hilarious, the remarks of someone clearly out of his depth:

BLITZER: Dr. Carson, what would you do about Kim Jong-Un?

CARSON: Well, I definitely believe that he is unstable, and I do, in fact, believe that China has a lot more influence with him than we do. But we also recognize that North Korea is in severe financial straits, and they have decided to use their resources to build their military, rather than to feed their people and to take care of the various humanitarian responsibilities that they have.

We can capitalize upon that. You know, we should use our economic power in lots of different ways. I think we can use that in order to keep Putin contained, because he is a one-horse show. Energy. And we have an abundance of energy, but we have archaic energy exportation rules. We need to get rid of those, allow ourselves to really make Europe dependent on us and other parts of the world dependent on us for energy. Put him back in his little box where he belongs.

In other words, Carson would handle Kim Jong-Un by legalizing oil exports and weakening Vladimir Putin. If you're confused, join the club:

Carson also stumbled when Hugh Hewitt asked him the most obvious possible question you could ask Ben Carson: What, exactly, about being a successful pediatric neurosurgeon prepares you to be commander-in-chief, "to command troops from Djibouti to Japan, troops from Afghanistan to Iraq, to be in charge of the men and women watching on Armed Services Network tonight?"

Carson explained that he deserves to be president because he once ran a scholarship program:

CARSON: Well, you know, there's a false narrative that only the political class has the wisdom and the ability to be commander-in- chief. But if you go back and you study the design of our country, it was really designed for the citizen statesman.

And we need to be talking about where does your experience come from? You know, and I've had a lot of experience building things, organizing things, you know, a national scholarship program.

That wasn't even the most bizarre answer he gave all night. That would be his explanation of how defeating ISIS is like taking a tumor out of a child's head:

HEWITT: We're talking about ruthless things tonight — carpet bombing, toughness, war. And people wonder, could you do that? Could you order air strikes that would kill innocent children by not the scores, but the hundreds and the thousands? Could you wage war as a commander-in-chief?

CARSON: Well, interestingly enough, you should see the eyes of some of those children when I say to them we're going to have to open your head up and take out this tumor. They're not happy about it, believe me. And they don't like me very much at that point. But later on, they love me.

Sometimes you — I sound like him. [gestures at Trump].


You know, later on, you know, they really realize what's going on. And by the same token, you have to be able to look at the big picture and understand that it's actually merciful if you go ahead and finish the job, rather than death by 1,000 pricks.

In the moment, Carson fared all right with the audience, which thought the Trump nod was funny and booed Hewitt when he tried to ask a follow-up clarifying Carson's thoughts on civilian casualties. But it didn't do anything to rebut the idea that this is a candidate who's seriously out of his depth on foreign affairs and national security, who thinks in pat parables and folksy anecdotes but who's not actually fit to command the military.

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