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3 winners and 3 losers from Thursday night's Republican presidential 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.

The Fox Business debate on January 14 was the liveliest of the Republican presidential contests since the first Fox News event last August, when America first experienced the spectacle of Donald Trump on a debate stage. Trump and Ted Cruz, who have spent most of this campaign in a tacit truce, finally went at it, and it was glorious. Marco Rubio was more energized than we've seen him in a long while, though neither he nor Cruz seemed to understand what a VAT is. Jeb Bush described repealing the Dodd-Frank act as a national security issue, and John Kasich referred to the TPP trade deal as PTT for some reason. Good times all around.

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: Ted Cruz

GOP Presidential Candidates Debate In Charleston
A natural-born citizen.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

Cruz is in a very good position at the moment: He leads in the influential Des Moines Register poll of Iowa and is neck and neck with Donald Trump in the polling averages there. Add the fact that Cruz has a solid ground game, with thousands of volunteers and a 48-room dormitory in which to house them — whereas one of Trump's Iowa precinct captains has disowned his candidate's anti-Muslim comments on the grounds that 9/11 is an inside job and Muslims are thus not to blame — and the odds of Cruz winning Iowa, and gaining momentum thereafter in New Hampshire and South Carolina, look pretty high.

But uneasy lies the head that wears a crown, and naturally Cruz has faced more incoming attacks as his polling has improved, most notably attacks from Donald Trump arguing that Cruz's Canadian birth renders him ineligible for the presidency. What he needed to do Thursday night was effectively rebut those attacks and preserve his position. He did that brilliantly. "Well, Neil," he told moderator Neil Cavuto after he brought up the issue. "I'm glad we're focusing on the important topics of the evening." The crowd applauded. Cruz continued with the following devastating riposte to Trump:

Back in September, my friend Donald said he had his lawyers look at this from every which way and there was no issue there. There was nothing to this birther issue. Now since September, the Constitution hasn't changed. [Laughter] But the poll numbers have. [Cheering] And I recognize, I recognize that Donald is dismayed that his poll numbers are falling in Iowa. But the facts and law here are really quite clear. Under longstanding US law, the child of a US Citizen born abroad is a natural-born citizen.

It succeeded, however briefly, in making Trump look like something he's never resembled this whole campaign: a loser, and a petty, small loser at that.

Even earlier, Cruz easily swatted back a question from co-moderator Maria Bartiromo about a New York Times investigation finding he failed to disclose a huge loan from Goldman Sachs to his Senate campaign in 2011. It turns out that making the issue about the liberal media's perfidy is an effective tactic when your audience is GOP primary voters:

Well, Maria, thank you for passing on that hit piece on the front page of the New York Times. [Laughter]. You know the nice thing about the mainstream media, they don't hide their views. The New York Times a few weeks back had a columnist who wrote a column saying, "anybody but Cruz." They had that same columnist wrote a column comparing me to an evil, demonic spirit from the movie It Follows, that jumps apparently from body to body possessing people. So, you know the New York Times and I don't exactly have the warmest of relationships.

Now, in terms of their really stunning hit piece, what they mentioned is when I was running for Senate, unlike Hillary Clinton, I don't have masses of money in the bank, hundreds of millions of dollars. When I was running for Senate just about every lobbyist, just about all the establishment opposed me in the Senate race in Texas. And my opponent in that race was worth over $200 million. He put a $25 million check up from his own pocket to fund that campaign. And my wife Heidi and I, we ended up investing everything we owned.

We took out a loan against our assets to invest it in that campaign to defend ourselves against those attacks, and the entire New York Times attack is that I disclosed that loan on one filing with the United States Senate, that was a public filing but it was not on a second filing with the FEC. Both of those filings were public. And yes, I made a paperwork error disclosing it on one piece of paper instead of the other. But if that is the best hit the New York Times has got, they better go back to the well.

Leave aside the fact that the Times op-ed page and Frank Bruni are totally separate from the newspaper's political reporters, and leave aside Cruz's phony posturing that he and his wife — alums of Harvard Law and Harvard Business School, respectively —are somehow everyday folk and not rich elites. This is exactly the answer the audience wanted to hear: These concerns are fake, raised by liberal enemies who aren't trustworthy, and they're hitting me because they hate me and are frightened by me. It's masterful debating, and it's telling that none of his opponents onstage seized on the Times piece afterward.

Also, It Follows is great, and everyone should watch it regardless of its relationship to Cruz.

Winner: Donald Trump

GOP Presidential Candidates Debate In Charleston
"This guy!"
Scott Olson/Getty Images

Sure, Cruz got the better of him on the birther question. Trump was even booed during his response to Cruz. But the GOP frontrunner nonetheless held his own, and got two big moments to shine.

The first was when Bartiromo brought up South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley's official Republican response to the State of the Union Tuesday night, a response that included what many interpreted as slights against Trump ("During anxious times, it can be tempting to follow the siren call of the angriest voices"). Haley herself acknowledged she was talking, at least in part, about Trump. Trump, confronted with the comments, embraced Haley, but also unleashed a passionate defense of, well, being angry:

First of all, Nikki this afternoon said I'm a friend of hers. Actually a close friend. Wherever you are sitting Nikki, I'm a friend. We're friends. That's good. [Laughter]

She did say there was anger. I'm very angry because our country is being run horribly and I will gladly accept the mantle of anger. Our military is a disaster. [Applause] Our health care is a horror show. Obamacare, we're going to repeal it and replace it. We have no borders. Our vets are being treated horribly. Illegal immigration is beyond belief. Our country is being run by incompetent people.

And yes, I am angry. And I won't be angry when we fix it but until we fix it, I'm very, very angry. I say that to Nikki. So when Nikki said that, I wasn't offended. She said the truth. One of your colleagues interviewed me. And said, well, she said you were angry. I said to myself, huh, she's right. I'm not fighting that. I didn't find it offensive at all. I'm angry because our country is a mess.

"I will gladly accept the mantle of anger" is an instantly memorable line, perhaps the one quote from this debate that will be recalled weeks and months into the future. And it taps into a real feeling about the GOP base: that most candidates are disconnected and only understand their frustrations in the abstract. The Atlantic's Molly Ball put it well:

Perhaps even better was when Trump avenged Cruz's birther victory by destroying Cruz for his attacks on Trump's "New York values." After a weird intro pointing out that William F. Buckley was a conservative but also, in an intriguing twist, a New Yorker, Trump pummeled Cruz for disrespecting the victims of 9/11:

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. You had two — [applause] You had two 110-story buildings come crashing down, thousands of people killed, and the cleanup started the next day, and it was the most horrific cleanup probably in the history of doing this, and in construction, I was down there. And I've never seen anything like it. And the people in New York fought and fought and fought, and we saw more death and even the smell of death. Nobody understood it. And it was with us for months. The smell. The air. And we rebuilt downtown Manhattan, and everybody in the world watched, and everybody in the world loved New York and loved New Yorkers, and I have to tell you, that was a very insulting statement that Ted made. [Applause]

"You're an effete liberal New Yorker" is an effective attack in GOP primaries, but it's nowhere near as effective as, "You are spitting on the smoldering bodies of our nation's fallen heroes." It was a weird unforced error for Cruz to let Trump unleash this attack, which he must have known was coming. But even if the line succeeded more because Cruz screwed up than because Trump delivered, Trump nailed it nonetheless, and got the audience back on his side after the birther exchange.

Winner: Marco Rubio

GOP Presidential Candidates Debate In Charleston
Rubio lifts an invisible coffee table by its sides.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

Look, it's something of a tradition for mainstream media pundits to declare that Rubio keeps winning debates, and to predict his inevitable rise to the top, only for him to keep flailing in third place. And while I will protest that I declared him a loser of the last debate, I've been guilty of Rubio boosterism myself too.

All the same, tonight we saw a far more energized and active Rubio than we've seen at any previous debate. He forced debates with Cruz without it feeling forced. If you hadn't been tuning into any debates, or following the race at all, and saw Thursday night's debate, you'd say there were three frontrunners: Trump, Cruz, and Rubio. That's a clear victory for the latter.

Debate jokes can be hit-or-miss, but Rubio's interjection into the Trump/Cruz birther exchange was solid: Start with a dumb dad joke, then pivot into broadly popular Obama bashing that establishes him as a strong conservative not sucked into the narcissistic legalisms of the two frontrunners:

I hate to interrupt this episode of Court TV but the real — [cheers and applause] But, I think we have to get to what this election has to be about. This is the greatest country in the history of mankind but in 2008 we elected a president that didn't want to fix America. He wants to change America. We elected a president that doesn't believe in the Constitution. He undermines it. We elected a president that is weakening America on the global stage. We elected a president that doesn't believe in the free enterprise system. This election has to be about reversing all of that damage. That is why I'm running for office. Because when I become president of the United States, on my first day in office, we are going to repeal every single one of his unconstitutional executive orders. When I'm president of the United States — [cheers and applause] — We are getting rid of Obamacare and we're rebuilding our military. When I'm president we will not just have a president that gives a State of the Union that says America is greatest country of the world. When I'm president, we will have a president that acts like it.

Rubio also got into it with Cruz on both Cruz's proposal for a value-added tax and on his immigration record. That could've easily backfired, and it's unclear if he came out ahead in either exchange. But he clearly got under Cruz's skin, and staked out the time necessary to establish himself as a major challenger to Cruz's and Trump's domination.

The VAT bit was weird in that Rubio kept referring to it as a "VAT tax," which is kind of like "ATM machine," but Rubio benefited from Cruz's continued insistence that "the business flat tax in my proposal is not a VAT," which is a straight-up, brazen lie. That makes it very easy for Rubio's allies in the conservative press to then point out that Cruz is lying to voters about his tax plan and the fact that it includes a massive European-style sales tax.

The immigration bit was even more positive for Rubio, who got to include this extended screed condemning Cruz's alleged flip-flopping and apostasies:

When you talk about immigration. Ted Cruz, you used to say you supported doubling the number of green cards, now you say you're against it. You used to support 500 percent increase in the number of guest workers, now against it. You used to support legalizing people here illegally. Now against it. You used to say you were in favor of birthright citizenship. Now you are against it. Not just on immigration, you used to support TPA, now you are against it. I saw you on the Senate floor flip your vote on crop insurance because they told you it would help you in Iowa. And last week we saw you flip the vote on Iowa for the same reason.

That is not consistent conservatism. That is political calculation. When I am president, I will work to keep this country safe, not call Edward Snowden, as you did, a great public servant. Edward Snowden is a traitor. If I get my hands on him, he is standing trial for treason. Every single time there has been a defense bill in the Senate, three people team up to vote against it. Bernie Sanders, Rand Paul and Ted Cruz. In fact, the only budget you have ever voted for, Ted, in entire time in the Senate is a budget from Rand Paul that brags about or cuts defense. Here's the bottom line, if I'm president of the United States and Congress tries to cut the military, I will veto that in a millisecond.

Not only was this a powerful extended screed, but a lot of it — the crop insurance line, the Snowden line, the green card line — had the virtue of being true. And while Cruz's response of calling Rubio a liar and reminding people that he backed a pathway to citizenship wasn't bad, it wasn't the brilliant parry that, say, Cruz's defense on birtherism was.

Loser: Chris Christie

GOP Presidential Candidates Debate In Charleston
Yes, you did support Sonia Sotomayor.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

Cruz did a whole lot of lying at the debate, but he had nothing on Chris Christie, whose lies were weirder, less persuasive, and way more desperate. Just look at this excerpt:

So let's set the facts straight. First of all I didn't support Sonia Sotomayor. Secondly I never wrote a check to Planned Parenthood. Third, if you look at my record as governor of New Jersey, I have vetoed a 50-caliber rifle ban. I vetoed a reduction in clip size. I vetoed a statewide ID system for gun owners and I pardoned six out-of-state folks who came through our state arrested for owning a gun legally in another state, so they didn't have to face charges. Common Core has been eliminated in New Jersey. This is the difference between governor and a senator. See when you're senator, what you get to do is talk and talk and talk you talk so much that nobody can ever keep up with what you're saying is accurate or not. When you're a governor, you're held accountable for everything you do. And the people of New Jersey have seen it. [Applause]

And last piece is this. I like Marco too. And, two years ago he called me a conservative reformer that New Jersey needed. That was before he was running against me. Now that he is he changed his tune. I'm never going to change my tune. I like Marco Rubio. He is a good guy, a smart guy, and he would be a heck of a lot better president than Hillary Rodham Clinton would ever be.

It's hard to know where to start.

Christie is just consistently, repeatedly, brazenly lying. And it's not the same as Ted Cruz's "the VAT I'm proposing is not a VAT" lying. Cruz is 100 percent wrong there, but at least it's a question of proper categorization. Christie is, by contrast, denying saying things he definitely said, claiming to have done things he definitely didn't do, and claiming to have not done things that he previously swore he did do. It's bizarre, not least because it's very easy to prove that Christie's lying.

What's more, Christie blunts what could be an effective attack line with a desperate attempt to suck up to Rubio and maybe, if he's really lucky, become his vice president. It was a strange, unpersuasive performance from a candidate who desperately needs to break through in New Hampshire if he's to survive.

Loser: the moderators

GOP Presidential Candidates Debate In Charleston
Neil Cavuto and Maria Bartiromo.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

I mean, what was even going on there? Cavuto and Bartiromo lost control of the candidates right from the get-go, and allowed the seven contenders to self-enforce a rule stating that anyone mentioned in another person's statement, or in a comment by the moderators themselves, had a right to respond. Good moderators could've stepped in and said, "Yes, you were mentioned, but we really have to move on." Cavuto and Bartiromo did not do that. Candidates were allowed to talk over each other for a chance to speak with limited intervention.

Worse, they were allowed to just straight-up ignore the actual question being asked. When Bartiromo asked Cruz a question about the economy at the debate's outset — "The president is touting 14 million new jobs and unemployment rate cut in half. The president said that anyone who claims America's economy is in decline is peddling fiction. Senator Cruz, what do you see that he doesn't?" — Cruz replied by talking about Iran's temporary detention of American sailors after their entered Iranian waters without permission.

Cavuto and Bartiromo should have stopped him and made him answer the actual question. They didn't, nor did they force any other candidate to answer the question posed to him:

And even as candidates like Cruz and Christie were brazenly lying, the moderators did not press them on any of their lies or do fact-checking of any kind. They let them run through their talking points, accurate or not:

It didn't help that the moderators themselves were often peddling falsehoods. "We know that recent global events have many people worried. Iran detaining American sailors, forcing them to apologize. North Korea and its nuclear ambitions, aggressive China and Middle East that continues to deteriorate," Bartiromo said. "Not to mention ISIS is getting stronger." This is all wrong. ISIS is getting weaker, not stronger. China is not being "aggressive" to the US in any real way. And lumping in American sailors accidentally violating Iranian sovereignty next to actual problems in the world is absurd.

The moderation of the debate was a clown show from start to finish. Thank God Fox Business isn't scheduled to host any more.

Loser: the truth

The only GIF that matters.
Internet lore

It's a depressing thing when you have to evaluate candidates' wins and losses by weighing the relative effectiveness of their lies. But that's basically what I had to do with Christie and Cruz. They both lied their asses off tonight — Cruz about taxes, and Christie about, well, everything. Christie's lies seemed less helpful and more brazen, so I think they hurt him while Cruz's helped.

But relative lying badness and relative lying utility are such strange, upsetting things to even be weighing. And Christie and Cruz were hardly the only offenders. Donald Trump falsely claimed that most Syrian immigrants entering Europe were "strong, powerful men." In fact, most are women and children. Marco Rubio said that ISIS is trying to recruit doctors and engineers to infiltrate the US. Not really, no. Rubio also suggested that ISIS is a bigger threat than gun violence. Nope. Ben Carson, for his part, mischaracterized his own tax plan. And on and on and on.

It was just babytown frolics all around. And the moderators, naturally, did no fact-checking of any kind. The result was a debate that probably left viewers less informed than they were coming in.

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