It has basically been a Trump–Cruz race the last couple of weeks, and it felt that way for much of the debate, and it seems that way after it.
I think the big event of the night was that Cruz showed he can stand up to the Biggest, Baddest Guy on the Stage. He went out of his way to clash with Trump on the eligibility question, when he could have tried to only address the merits of the question and leave Trump out of it. And he owned Trump in that exchange. Clearly, Cruz had thought through every possible permutation of the argument.
Cruz got bested by Trump on New York values and dinged up by Marco Rubio a bit at the end, but overall he was excellent. He is growing in stature and looking more and more like a plausible nominee.
But so is Trump. Even when Cruz was running rings around him on eligibility, Trump was fun and roguishly frank about how he is hitting Cruz because he is rising in the polls. It’s hard to exaggerate how good Trump’s New York answer was: No politician in either party could do it better. It speaks to a native political skill that is very impressive. Just imagine if Trump knew something, or actually was prepared. His closing was also notable and showed real range — he slowed down and spoke more quietly about the humiliation of the detention of our sailors, and it was very effective.
Trump remains a big, dominant figure, and is only getting better, with only a couple of weeks to go until actual voting.
I thought Rubio was good, if a little uneven. His team clearly wants him to sound harsher and more emphatic. It mostly worked for him, but also felt a little unnatural at times, and he has to be careful about not giving himself an authenticity problem. He didn’t seem comfortable with his attack on Christie, and the governor shut him down later saying Rubio “blew it” when the senator ignored a question about entitlements to instead hit Cruz on his VAT plan.
Rubio was better than Christie, John Kasich, and Jeb Bush, but not as good as Cruz and Trump, which reflects his current position in the race.
As for the others: Christie can certainly speak to the mood of the Republican electorate, but his record is a drag on him; Kasich is only relevant to the center–left in New Hampshire and won’t be able to do anything with a decent showing there regardless; Jeb is just not a strong performer in these forums.
In sum, there wasn’t anything transformative, but the shape of the race is steadily coming into focus.