Breaking down last night's winners and losers: Last night's fourth Republican presidential debate reinforced our perceptions of the GOP field's best debaters (Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio), it probably stopped the bleeding for Jeb Bush, and it mostly hurt the two frontrunners (Ben Carson and Donald Trump) -- because of the heavy policy discussion. Here's our list of winners and losers from what, ultimately, will be a forgettable debate 24 hours from now:
- Marco Rubio: He had another solid debate performance, giving memorable soundbites ("We need more welders and less philosophers") and flexing his hawkish muscles on foreign policy. But here's the thing: He wasn't challenged AT ALL -- he got to avoid the immigration discussion, and he received that softball question on Hillary Clinton. Rubio is a good debater, and he always seems prepared. But as we head into the later debates, there's the question if he's a little too canned. Still, he definitely solidified himself as the GOP establishment's best hope.
- Ted Cruz: Had it not been for his own "oops" moment of sorts, seeming to forget (like Rick Perry) one of the agencies he'd eliminate, Cruz would have been your overall winner. He is really good at these debates, which shouldn't be surprising given his debating days at Princeton. Cruz is certainly built for the long haul of this GOP race.
- Rand Paul: Last night, Paul sounded like the guy we expected at the start of this presidential contest, and he stood out during two moments -- his foreign-policy debate with Rubio, and his reminder to Donald Trump that China isn't a part of the TPP agreement.
- Jeb Bush: Earlier this week, the National Review's Eliana Johnson reported that, according to one donor, Bush needed to hit a single at the debate to stay alive. Well, consider last night a bloop single for Jeb -- he was more forceful and combative. So last night probably stopped the bleeding for him. He didn't stand out like the others above, but he gets to keep the vultures at bay, which is important for his campaign.
- Carly Fiorina: She remains a good performer at these debates, and probably has been able to use them to at least put her in veepstakes consideration for next spring/summer. Then again, her line of the night that she's met Vladimir Putin before -- not in a green room for a show, but in a private meeting" -- has one big problem: That's exactly how she described her meeting with Putin. "I met him [Putin] in Beijing. We were in sort of a green room setting - each of us were giving a speech at a major economic conference," she told NBC's Jimmy Fallon back in September. Rut-roh.
- Donald Trump: The heavy policy discussion didn't allow Trump to stand out -- and it even made him look a bit forgettable, which is political kryptonite for him.
- Ben Carson: Just like with Trump, the policy focus -- especially on foreign affairs -- didn't help Carson. Sure, he didn't do anything that would force his supporters to abandon him. But he didn't help himself, either.
- John Kasich: Like in last month's debate, Kasich definitely inserted himself into the discussion. But he continues to come across as the GOP scold. And to win over Republican voters, you just can't always appeal to their heads; you have to appeal to their hearts, too.
Cruz vs. Rubio is coming: Another big takeaway from last night's debate is that a showdown between Ted Cruz and Marco is coming -- maybe not today or tomorrow. But it's coming. Just note Cruz's reference to sugar subsidies (which are important to Florida and its big political donors). "You know, I mention that the 25 programs that I put today, that I would eliminate them. Among them are corporate welfare, like sugar subsidies," Cruz said. "Let's take that as an example. Sugar subsidies. Sugar farmers farm under roughly 0.2% of the farmland in America, and yet they give 40% of the lobbying money. That sort of corporate welfare is why we're bankrupting our kids, and grandkids. I would end those subsidies to pay for defending this nation." When you combine that with Cruz's statement against illegal immigration, you see how Cruz is angling himself for a future showdown with Rubio.
An overcorrection: We have one final observation about last night: The moderation felt like an overcorrection from the previous CNBC debate. Sure, the questions were serious and the mood was relatively cordial. But it seemed like some of the candidates were itching for a bigger fight, but didn't get it.
On the trail: Donald Trump stumps in New Hampshire, where he already participated in a town hall with "Morning Joe"… Ben Carson gives a speech at Liberty University in Lynchburg, VA… Jeb Bush campaigns in Iowa… Rubio hits both Iowa and South Carolina… Kasich also is in South Carolina… And Ted Cruz campaigns in New Hampshire.
Additional reporting by Leigh Ann Caldwell.