Who Won GOP debate, besides Donald Trump???

As is generally the case, Donald Trump was a nonfactor in this debate. The only difference this time is, he wasn't actually there. Yet again, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and Chris Christie emerged as the best debaters of the night, with Rand Paul benefiting from the additional time afforded by Trump's absence.

If you're one of the 40% of Iowa caucus-goers who are reportedly still undecided, you got a great education in the differences between the substantive candidates in the GOP primary tonight. From immigration to ISIS, vets issues to criminal justice reform, it was an enlightening, informative night.

Tangentially, while debates are not Jeb Bush's strong suit, he was far more focused and relaxed tonight, perhaps because he wasn't distracted by the Orange One for once. His defense against being perceived as "establishment" -- joyfully bearhugging his mom, dad and brother -- was the kind of easy-going, good-natured and confident Jeb that his supporters should want to see more of.

Winner: Marco Rubio. From style to substance, and even in the face of attacks from nearly every candidate on the stage, Rubio proved he has the chops to take on Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders as the voice of a new generation. He was quick on his feet, studied, disciplined, personable, decisive, funny, and natural. In a night focused on Cruz, he overshadowed.

Runner up: Chris Christie. The drumbeat that he's delivered conservative policy to liberal New Jersey is effective and compelling. His disciplined focus on continually turning the debate back on Clinton forces you to visualize him in the general election. It's clear for Christie, the primary is just temporary housing, where for some others, the primary is where they plan to retire. 

Second runner-up: Republican voters, who finally got a fully substantive debate devoid of Trump's incoherent blurting and debate moderators' Trump fixation. 

Loser: Ted Cruz. Don't get me wrong -- Cruz was great tonight. He looked like a frontrunner, he delivered some effective lines. His stance against ethanol subsidies -- in Iowa -- was right and courageous, given the room. But if anyone had a better performance (and I believe Rubio and Christie did), with the stakes this high, with Trump absent, with Iowa on the horizon, it's a loss for him.

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