7 Ways the GOP Debate Did (and Didn't) Change the Presidential Race

For one thing, Ted Cruz and Donald Trump are still friends.

ByABC News
December 16, 2015, 1:36 PM

— -- It was the last major opportunity to shape the Republican presidential race before the new year.

With the crucial Iowa caucuses just 48 days away, the White House contenders took to the debate stage with a lot on the line. Recent national polls have shown Donald Trump pulling away from the pack, growing his support to more than 40 percent in the race for the GOP nomination.

Two familiar battles emerged: Sens. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio duked it out over fighting ISIS, while Trump and Jeb Bush sparred over whether Trump was a “serious” candidate.

With Cruz running neck and neck with Trump in Iowa and several candidates trying to make a move in New Hampshire, the stakes for this debate may have been the highest yet.

Here’s how Tuesday night’s debate changed (and didn't change) the state of the 2016 race:

1. Ted Cruz and Donald Trump Remain Friends – for Now

While some pundits expected the escalating tension between Cruz and Trump in Iowa to boil over in Tuesday night’s Las Vegas debate, both candidates mostly held their fire. “I have gotten to know him over the last three or four days; he has a wonderful temperament,” Trump said of Cruz on stage. “He's just fine. Don't worry about it.”

Trump has said on the trail that he does not attack other candidates without first being provoked. But as Cruz was pressed on comments he made in private last week questioning Trump’s judgment, Trump made a not-so-subtle threat: “You’d better not attack,” he said.

“What I said in private is exactly what I’d say here,” Cruz replied.

But not only did Cruz decline to take a shot, he even refused to explicitly highlight differences between his policies and Trump’s.

“Everyone understands why Donald has suggested what he has,” Cruz said when asked whether agreed with Trump’s proposed temporary ban on Muslims’ entering the United States.

“We're looking at a president who has engaged in this double speak,” he continued, pivoting to Obama.

Later in the debate, Cruz even had a light moment with Trump, quipping: “We will build a wall that works and I'll get Donald Trump to pay for it.”

Trump chuckled, adding “I’ll build it.”

The two outsider candidates will continue to battle atop the polls in Iowa, but it’s unclear when – if at all – they will battle on the campaign trail.

2. The Battle Lines Are Clearer: Marco Rubio Spars With Ted Cruz

Beneath the front-runner’s sweeping lead, the rest of the race is starting to take shape. Marco Rubio and Cruz didn’t pull any punches during Tuesday night’s debate. The two young first-term senators both see themselves as viable competition to Trump’s front-runner status over the long haul, but neither has coalesced enough support on a national level to give Trump a run for his money.

“One of the problems with Marco's foreign policy is he has far too often supported Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama undermining governments in the Middle East that have helped radical Islamic terrorists,” Cruz jabbed at Rubio.

But Rubio tried to paint Cruz as an isolationist. “If we continue those cuts that we're doing now, not to mention additional cuts we’re going to be left with the smallest and oldest Air Force this country has ever had and that leaves us less safe,” Rubio fired back.

3. Jeb Bush Pulled Out All the Stops

Jeb Bush’s campaign is stalling in national and early state polls – and the clock is ticking. So Bush went out gunning for Trump from the beginning. “Donald is great at the one-liners,” Bush said. “But he’s a chaos candidate. And he’d be a chaos president.”

Trump wasn’t having any of it. “Jeb doesn't really believe I'm unhinged. He said that very simply because he has failed in this campaign,” Trump responded. “It's been a total disaster. Nobody cares.”

Trump also cited a Monmouth University poll: “I'm at 42 and you’re at 3 [percent]. So far I'm doing better.”

Later in the debate, the two jostled for speaking time.

“Am I allowed to finish? Excuse me, am I allowed to finish?” Trump said over Bush. “Bit of your own medicine there, Trump,” Bush jabbed back.

“I know you’re trying to build up your energy, Jeb but it’s not working,” Trump said.

But Bush also went after Trump over his credibility on national security. “I won't get my information from the shows,” Bush said, referring to an interview in which Trump said he got military advice from the Sunday morning political shows. “I don't know if that is Saturday morning or Sunday morning. I don't know which one,” he continued, implying that Trump got advice from Saturday morning cartoons.

4. Chris Christie Gears Up for a Run in New Hampshire

Chris Christie didn’t have any archrivals on the debate stage Tuesday night, but he clearly tried to differentiate himself from the two prominent senators on stage.

“If your eyes are glazing over like mine, this is what it is like to be on the floor of the United States Senate,” Christie said.

The New Jersey governor continually highlighted his experience as a former federal prosecutor. He painted Rubio and Cruz – both first-term Senators who have not held executive elected office – as people “who never had to make a consequential decision in an executive position.”

“I had to make these decisions after 9/11,” he continued. “Make a decision on how to proceed forward with an investigation or how to pull forward or pull back. Whether you use certain actionable intelligence or whether not to. Yet they debate about this bill and the subcommittee. And nobody in America cares about that.”

Polls in New Hampshire show Christie still stuck battling with other candidates in the middle of the pack, but a string of several significant endorsements in the Granite State over the past several weeks have given his campaign some momentum with 55 days until the voters are cast.

5. Most Candidates Still Bet on a Donald Trump Collapse

If you were watching Tuesday night’s debate without any knowledge of recent polling, you might think Rubio and Cruz were jockeying atop the race for the Republican nomination. Most of the candidates held their fire when it came to Trump, despite his 27-point lead in a recent national Monmouth University poll.

In addition to Jeb Bush, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul was the only other candidate who fired shots at Trump. “The question is, how do we keep America save from Terrorism?” Paul asked in his opening statement. “Trump says close that internet thing. The question is what does he mean by that? Like they do in North Korea? Like they do in China?”