5 takeaways from the GOP debate – Politico

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Cruz wins a round, Rubio fades, Christie lives to fight another day.

If you like a good heavyweight donnybrook, this was the best debate to date: The two GOP fighters with the sturdiest jaws and nastiest hooks — Donald Trump and Ted Cruz — finally went at each other after months of faux-friendship shadow boxing.

And the Tea Party Texan more than held his own – and had enough left to absorb a few stray blows from Marco Rubio.

The referees basically took the night off. To say that the first debate of 2016, held in deep-red South Carolina and sponsored by the FOX Business Network, featured the lightest questioning yet was an understatement. There will be no post-debate whining about rough, unfair grilling this time around: Over and over, moderator Maria Bartiromo offered “thank you” instead of posing follow-up questions to filibustering candidates.

The sixth Republican debate might have been the most consequential: It comes less than three weeks before the critical Feb. 1 Iowa caucuses, a time when many voters make up their minds – or switch their preferences. Here are five takeaways.

1. Cruz out-bullies Trump. In the most significant (and electrifying) exchange between any two GOP candidates this cycle, Cruz easily parried Trump’s bully-boy attacks and lacerated the Republican frontrunner like a Harvard debate team senior hazing a stuttering frosh. When the Texas senator was asked to address Trump’s newfound skepticism about his legal standing to run for president, Cruz ripped Trump for stoking claims that Cruz’s Canadian birth certificate makes him ineligible for the nation’s highest office: “You know, back in September, my friend Donald said that he had had his lawyers look at this from every which way, and there was no issue there,” he said, referring to his birth in Canada. “There was nothing to this birther issue … Now, since September, the Constitution hasn’t changed.”

Then, a remarkable admission from Trump – who conceded his friendly-fire attack on his onetime political buddy was entirely motivated by political self-preservation. When moderator Neil Cavuto asked, “Why are you saying this now — right now? Why are you raising this issue now?” he shot back, with: “Because now he’s going a little bit better [in Iowa polls]. No, I didn’t care… Hey look, he never had a chance. Now, he’s doing better. He’s got probably a four or five percent chance [now].”

And Cruz turned the tables on Trump as no other foil has ever done: Forcing the usually steely businessman to offer a heartfelt defense of his hometown – and its sacrifices on 9/11 – when the transplanted Texan attacked his “New York values.” Trump offered an eloquent defense, but it threw him off offense.

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