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RAMBUNCTIOUS DEBATE SCRAMBLES IOWA RACE
DES MOINES, IOWA – Ted Cruz got a taste of frontrunner status in Thursday’s debate and he likely didn’t find it too relishing.

Given Donald Trump’s decision to skip the Republicans only Iowa debate, the Texas senator found himself not only on the receiving end of more tough questions from moderators, he also became the biggest target on the stage for his rivals.

The good news for Cruz is that in the early going of the debate he took full advantage – and quite effectively – of the opportunity provided by Trump’s snub. Aside from being funny about Trump’s penchant for insults, Cruz paid plain deference to the demanding caucus-goers of Iowa.  

In Cruz’s bid to be the consensus conservative choice nationally, his performance was uneven. Aside from overusing his debate device of complaining about the questions, Cruz also found himself too much on the defensive. It was hardly dire, but it was clear evidence of how much harder life is for Cruz outside of Trump’s shadow.

As it is every four years, Iowa is proving unpredictable in the closing days before the caucuses. Polls show plenty of entropy in the GOP electorate in Iowa.

That’s cause for both hope and concern for Cruz.

Trump’s decision not only to skip the lone Iowa debate but also to leave the state for New Hampshire immediately after doing so will hurt him with Iowa voters who take pride in their place at the front of the line.

That means Trump’s voters may decide to rally to Cruz’s cause, and he certainly made his case to them on Thursday.

However, it also means that third place Marco Rubio has a chance to move up.

There are a lot more voters up for grabs in Iowa than the parroting parrots of the press would have you think. And while Cruz has been Steady Teddy when it comes to Iowa, the chaos of the race here at this moment will test his status as the early choice of many in the Hawkeye State.

Rubio did not have his best debate performance in Des Moines, especially because his eternal antagonist, Jeb Bush, found a new energy with his own nemesis Trump off the stage. Bush took his pep pills for the debate and managed hit Rubio harder than before.

But Rubio also did himself well. As a young senator, Rubio faces one major obstacle: proving he is ready to be commander in chief. He showed several moments of presidential-level command Thursday.

Obviously, Rubio has plenty of work to do in convincing supporters of Bush, Gov. Chris Christie, R-N.J., and other lower tier candidates that the is the man for the job. Rubio’s range is expanding as the stakes go up. He has more to worry about from Bush than before, but Rubio has taken another step forward in uniting a substantial chunk of his party.

But the big question as it relates to Iowa is whether Trump can succeed in remaking the electorate. Trump’s coalition relies on importing plenty of independents and Democrats into GOP caucuses and turning out lots of first-time caucus-goers.

Put simply, if turnout looks like past cycles, Trump will have an unhappy start to his 2016 delegate hunt. But if Trump can do what Barack Obama did with Iowa Democrats in 2008, Trump can notch back-to-back wins in Iowa and New Hampshire to start February.

We have not seen the kind of change in voter registration numbers that foreshadowed Obama’s stunner, but Trump’s performance in polls is impossible to ignore. Also impossible to ignore, however, are the intensifying attacks on his record.

Either way, this is an unsettled electorate.

Rubio remains a long shot for a win here, but with this much uncertainty in Iowa, a surprise second-place finish might be in reach.

And for Cruz, both a commanding win and a disappointing finish remain very real possibilities.

IOWA POLL CHECK
Real Clear Politics Average
Iowa GOP caucus –
 Trump 31.8 percent; Cruz 24.8 percent; Rubio 14 percent; Carson 8 percent

Chris Stirewalt is digital politics editor for Fox News. Want FOX News First in your inbox every day? Sign up here.

Chris Stirewalt joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in July of 2010 and serves as digital politics editor based in Washington, D.C.  Additionally, he authors the daily "Fox News First" political news note and hosts "Power Play," a feature video series, on FoxNews.com. Stirewalt makes frequent appearances on the network, including "The Kelly File," "Special Report with Bret Baier," and "Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace."  He also provides expert political analysis for Fox News coverage of state, congressional and presidential elections.