5 Ways The Fourth Republican Debate Changed The Presidential Race

PHOTO: Republican presidential candidates take the stage before the Republican presidential debate on Nov. 10, 2015, in Milwaukee. PlayJeffrey Phelps/AP Photo
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At first glance, the fourth Republican debate may not have prompted sweeping changes to the landscape of the 2016 presidential race.

But in a splintered field of 15 candidates vying for the spotlight, it’s clear that every voter, every soundbite and every percentage point matters. (Just ask Mike Huckabee and Chris Christie, who were kept off the mainstage debate by one percentage point in one poll.)

Here are five ways that this debate shifted the contours of the battle for the White House:

1.Donald Trump and Ben Carson maintain the status quo as frontrunners.

Both frontrunners faced potential pitfalls last night. Trump has been reluctant to dive into specifics of policy so far in his campaign, a potential problem in a debate that focused mainly on just that. And Carson had faced new scrutiny over questions into his past. But neither candidate had any major moments that threatened their standing at the top.

Trump was criticized when he talked about China’s currency manipulation in response to a question about Trans-Pacific Partnership.

“We might want to point out China is not part of this deal,” Rand Paul said after Trump had finished his answer.

But the real estate mogul also had a few authoritative moments, including directing traffic on stage. “You should let Jeb speak,” Trump said, even adding. “No, it’s unfair.”

At one point, Trump even seemed like a unifying figure on the stage. “We all have a different tax plan,” he started. “Some I don't totally agree with. One thing we understand, each one of those tax plans is better than the mess that we have right now.”

And Ben Carson didn’t face any detailed questions into his past during the debate.

“The fact of the matter is, what, we should vet all candidates,” Carson said. “I have no problem with being vetted,” he added. “What I do have a problem with is being lied about.”

2. Jeb Bush lives to fight another day.

After the third Republican debate, some pundits had said that Bush’s days were numbered. But a solid performance in a more policy-based, wonky debate allowed Bush to show off some of his chops.

His performance may not prompt any clear uptick in the polls, but it may have done some to calm anxious donors who are considering jumping ship.

“And even having this conversation sends a powerful signal,” he said, entering a dispute about undocumented immigrants by focusing on the general election. “They're doing high-fives in the Clinton campaign right now when they hear this."

And when Trump said that the country couldn’t continue to be the world’s policeman and should focus spending on domestic issues, Bush stepped in.

“Donald is wrong on this,” he said. “He is absolutely wrong on this. We're not going to be the world's policeman but we sure as heck better be the world's leader.”

3. Chris Christie stands out -- but does it matter?

Christie and Bobby Jindal had very different strategies going into last night’s undercard debate, and both candidates stood out. Jindal wasn’t afraid to attack the records of the other Republicans on stage with him, including the records of Christie and Mike Huckabee.

“I’ll give you a ribbon for participation and a juice box, it's about actually cutting government spending, not talking about cutting government spending,” Jindal jabbed at Christie.

But Christie took a deferential approach, aiming to appear above the fray by focusing his attacks on Hillary Clinton.

"I saw the most disgraceful thing I've seen this entire campaign a few weeks ago," he started. "Hillary Clinton was asked the enemy she is most proud of and she said Republicans."

But it’s not clear whether their performances will be enough to give them the boost they need. Much of the focus after the debate remains on the mainstage performances of the candidates who are polling higher. Still, both Huckabee and Christie missed the mainstage by only 1 percentage point in one poll, meaning that just a slight shift could send them to the mainstage next time.

4. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz continue to attract buzz.

Both Rubio and Cruz had Republicans and the media buzzing after the last GOP debate, and their performances only increased attention on their candidacies for the nomination.

Rubio, who is consistently polling double digits nationally now, still garners roughly half the support of Trump or Carson, but many see him as a plausible threat to the nomination.

“I know enough about him to know he is a gangster,” Rubio said in a response centered on Putin. “He is basically an organized crime figure that runs the country, controls a 2 trillion dollar economy and is using to build up his military in a rapid way despite the fact his economy is a disaster.”

But Cruz is also quickly on the rise, his candidacy enhanced by another strong debate, especially because the format let his rhetorical chops shine.

“The biggest lie in Washington and politics is that Republicans are party of rich,” he said. “The truth is the rich do great with big government. They get in bed with big government.”

5. Substantive format highlights strengths of some.

A more substantive debate on economic policy highlighted the strengths of some candidates like Paul. The 90-second answers allowed these candidates to focus on the content of answers instead of soundbites that come more naturally for other candidates.

“Marco, how is it conservative to add a trillion dollar expenditure for the federal government that you're not paying for?” Paul asked Rubio in a pointed debate over military spending.

But Rubio came back: “We can't even have an economy if we're not safe,” he said. “There are radical jihadists in the Middle East beheading people and crucifying Christians.”

Other candidates, like Cruz and Christie, also shone under this format.

“How do we bring back economic growth? Because economic growth, it's foundational to every other challenge we have,” Cruz started, before diving into a detailed analysis laced with statistics.

Other candidates, like Carson, struggled with detailed explanations of foreign policy in response to questions.

“Well, putting the special ops people in there is better than not having them there because they -- that's why they're called special ops, they're actually able to guide some of the other things that we're doing there,” he started in response to a question about troops in Syria and Afghanistan. “And what we have to recognize is that Putin is trying to really spread his influence throughout the Middle East,” he continued, before talking about how to make jihadists look like “losers.”