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.
“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.
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.
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.
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?”
“So, when you ask yourself whoever you are that think you're going to support Donald Trump. Think, do you believe in the constitution?” Paul said of Trump.
Paul also didn’t hesitate to pile on Marco Rubio over national security and immigration.
But the rest of the field largely held off on the Trump attacks, not rattled by the shrinking timeline before the first votes are cast and Trump’s wide leads nationally and in the crucial first-in-the-nation primary state of New Hampshire.
And the New York real estate mogul is all in: He promised (again) Tuesday night that he would not mount a third party bid for president. "I am totally committed to the Republican party. I feel very honored to be the front-runner," he said.
6. Too Crowded in the Granite State: Fiorina and Kasich Still Face Uphill Climbs
With Christie and Bush attracting most of the attention of moderate Republicans trying to coalesce against Trump, fiscally focused candidates like Carly Fiorina and John Kasich faced uphill climbs in New Hampshire.
Fiorina had previously surged into second place in some New Hampshire polls after the second GOP debate, but has since fallen by the wayside. Kasich has been unable to break out of the pack in the Granite State. And national polls have both stagnant in the low single digits.
Both candidates tried to create moments during Tuesday night’s faceoff.
“Frankly it's time that we punched the Russians in the nose,” Kasich said. “They’ve gotten away with too much in this world.”
Fiorina, the only woman on stage, highlighted her gender with a memorable quip: “I will just add that Margaret Thatcher once said if you want something talked about, ask a man. If you want something done, ask a woman.”
But both struggled to stand out from the pack and attract speaking time. “I hope at some point you're going to ask me my strategy for defeating ISIS,” Fiorina said after roughly 20 minutes of silence.
7. Ben Carson Keeps Fading Behind Other Candidate Rivalries
Just one month ago, Ben Carson was widely seen as the largest threat to Donald Trump’s lead in Iowa and nationally. Some polls had even placed Carson ahead of the real estate mogul nationally. Not anymore.
And by opting not to wedge his way into the debate’s dynamic disagreements, Carson’s performance took a backstage to those moving up in the polls.
“This is the first time I have spoken and several people have had multiple questions. So, please try to pay attention to that,” Carson told the moderators during the debate, largely defined by the parallel battles between Rubio and Cruz, as well as Trump and Bush.
But explicitly given the opportunity to enter a debate between Rubio and Rand Paul, Carson declined. “I think you have to ask them about that,” he said. “I don't want to get in between them. Let them fight.”