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Ted Cruz won the debate

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Ted Cruz dominated the Fox Business News Republican primary debate in South Carolina. He went toe to toe with Donald Trump and Marco Rubio. He didn't slay either of them, but they didn't slay him. Best of all, he was centrally positioned throughout the evening — someone who speaks for grassroots discontent with the GOP establishment, but who does so from a standpoint of a conservatism that is much deeper and more authentic than Trump's.

The center of the party is a good position to hold in a primary, and Cruz firmly seized that middle ground. With Trump exerting a gravitational influence on the shape of the race, a guy who stood on the margin of the Senate Republican caucus suddenly looks like a useful bridge between Republican officialdom and the conservative grassroots. He's not well-liked by the party leadership in Washington, but he's intensely in touch with what committed conservatives think and care about.

He combines disloyalty to the party with intense loyalty to the cause in a way that makes him well-positioned to rise further as the field inevitably narrows. While 2015 was all about Trump, 2016's first debate showed that the main concrete impact of Trump has been to transform Cruz into a potentially unifying figure.

He had his finger perfectly on the pulse of the conservative base from the get-go. He got the first question of the night — about the economy — and he completely ignored it in favor of a demagogic rant about the American soldiers who accidentally drifted into Iranian waters this week. Except in Cruz's telling, there was no American error. He also forgot to mention the part where the sailors were returned, unharmed, within hours. Instead, he suggested they'd been kidnapped due to Obama's weakness and that a Cruz administration might have retaliated militarily.

The answer spoke loud and clear: Cruz didn't care what the moderators wanted to talk about. He wanted to talk about what conservatives wanted to talk about, which was what they see as a humiliation of the United States invited by the weakness of the president.

Cruz's mastery followed when he was asked about an improperly disclosed loan his Senate campaign received from Goldman Sachs, a question he perfectly parried into an extended attack on the New York Times — always a favorite conservative punching bag.

Then Cruz got yet another question, about his status as a natural-born citizen, which he used to reveal a humorous, charming side of himself that isn't as well-known to the public. He also offered what was perhaps the campaign's first instance of a genuinely effective attack on Trump, arguing that "the Constitution hasn't changed since September but the poll numbers have" — which made Trump out to be the one thing he most dreads: a loser.

Many pundits felt he lost an exchange in which he attacked Trump as espousing "New York values" of greed and social liberalism. Trump countered with a paean to New York's spirit of resilience on 9/11 that resonated greatly with most members of the media, many of whom live in New York and most of whom share New York's socially liberal values. But polls show most Republican voters have an unfavorable impression of New York, so we shouldn't simply assume the exchange went wrong for him.

Cruz also got into a back and forth with Marco Rubio about his tax plan. This is conceivably a point of weakness for Cruz even in a Republican primary, since his plan amounts to a big tax increase on middle-class seniors. But rather than home in on substance, Rubio got bogged down in a semantic dispute over whether Cruz's plan can be characterized as a form of value-added tax. Rubio is right that Cruz's plan is a VAT, but it's not clear why the name matters.

Every candidate on the stage denounced Obama's calls for gun control, but only Cruz managed to work in the fast and furious pseudo-scandal and an obscure 1995 Eric Holder quote about wanting to "brainwash people into thinking about guns in a vastly different way." Cruz is simply operating on the same wavelength as a dedicated Rush Limbaugh listener in a way that none of the other candidates are.

And, along with Trump, he is exciting. He has energy and presence that the establishment foursome lack.

And while Trump's gonzo shtick will continue to be appealing to a significant segment of the Republican electorate, what Cruz managed to do was to energize while espousing orthodox conservative views.

Republican Party elected officials in Washington, DC, may not like Cruz, but activists across the country are seeing more and more of a guy who stands solidly with them on all their issues. It's clear that party leaders don't want Cruz to be their nominee, but Thursday night he clearly looked like the most viable alternative to Trump. And with Trump totally unacceptable to huge and influential segments of the party, that means everything's coming up Ted.


Watch: Ted Cruz shuts down Donald Trump about his Canadian birth