It's down to Trump vs. Cruz plus four more things we learned at 2016's first GOP debate

Somebody out there in TV Cable Land has a sense of humor.

As Thursday night’s Fox Business Network debate commenced, Turner Classic Movies was into the second hour of “Gone With The Wind.” Deep in the heart of Civil War Georgia, Scarlett O’Hara kissed Ashley Wilkes goodbye as he headed off to battle. Deep inside an arena in North Charleston, South Carolina, seven Republican presidential hopefuls kissed up to early-primary voters.

The good news: FBN didn’t take the bait and turn the night into a conversation about Southern discomfort – the notion that the modern GOP is too Dixiefied in its social conservatism to win national elections. Even though the debate was held in a state – yes, governed by a vibrant Indian-American woman – that took down its Confederate flag only last year.

Call it “fair and balanced” meets “straight and narrow”, with two hours devoted to national security, the economy, the national debt and the war on crime, plus a chance to clarify a few harsh words said along the trail.

With but one gripe: tax reform didn’t come up until far too late into the evening. There’s a wide gulf within this field over tax reform – in particular, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz (a flat-taxer) and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio (a more traditional rate-reducer). Voters deserve to hear more. And hopefully they will, unless Cruz and Rubio devote their energies to attacking their respective Senate records as they did at the debate’s end.

Though the GOP field still consists of 12 candidates in total, it’s a two-tier race. On one level: Cruz and Donald Trump vying for the top spot in Iowa and the inside track to the nomination. The other tier: the foursome of Rubio, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, New Jersey Chris Christie and Ohio Gov. John Kasich all competing for the “establishment” slot coming out of February’s round of voting.

That leaves Ben Carson as the odd man out. Nothing personal against Dr. Carson: he’s a wonderful man with a candidacy that’s exceeded expectations. But his moment seems to have passed.

What did we learn Thursday night in North Charleston? Here are five takeaways.

For openers, it was a reminder that Cruz, like him or not, knows his way around a debate stage. He framed himself as one half of a humble couple of limited means in dismissing this week’s New York Times hit piece on his Goldman Sachs loan.

As for that pesky Canadian-by-birth controversy, Cruz duly noted (without looking directly at “my friend Donald”) that, since December, “the Constitution hasn’t changed, the poll numbers have.”

A word of caution here for the Cruz Crew: Jeb Bush tangled with Trump; his candidacy cratered. The same is true of Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, Thursday’s lone debate holdout. Like falling into a black hole or marrying a Kardashian, the contact sport that is extended sparring with The Donald is a ticket to oblivion. Trump knows this, which is why he doesn’t relent.

Just as Cruz will likely stick with his line that Trump embodies “New York values.” Yes, Trump cleverly invoked the late William F. Buckley, but Cruz is playing a long game: Iowa caucus-goers have a tradition of going with Republicans either from the Heartland or those who are steadfastly religious. Trump is neither. The “not one of us” argument may be Cruz’s trump card.

A second observation: this was anticipated as an “everyone hates Marco” event – the rest of the establishment quartet ganging up on the Florida senator, who’s pushing for third place in Iowa and second place in New Hampshire.

But that didn’t happen. Rubio and Christie did scuffle briefly over the latter’s record. Otherwise, Rubio emerged relatively undented.

Third, it was, in fact, a pretty good night for Christie. He flashed some edge and was strong in clarifying his New Jersey record (point of irony: while the New Jersey governor talked guns, Scarlett O’Hara was blowing away a Yankee trooper on a Tara stairwell).

Also shining, though he vanished in the second half of the debate: Kasich. The Ohio governor seemed more confortable on a less-crowded stage. Unlike past debates, Kasich didn’t come across as rushed or testy.

Finally, as for Bush, it was a middlin’-to-good night – he fared well at times, especially when he countered Trump’s Muslim ban.

But it wasn’t a great night.

The problem for Bush: it’s what Southerners call “catawampus” – a situation that’s gotten out of hand. The Bush super PAC is spending tens of millions of dollars on ads that effectively belittle other candidates but haven’t boosted Jeb’s poll numbers. Standing as he was at the end of the stage, the ex-frontrunner looked like he was from a distant planet, not the center of the solar system – a far cry from a year ago.

Just one GOP debate remains between now and Iowa’s verdict – Jan. 28 in Des Moines, with the Fox News Channel moderating. The candidates have seventeen days to alter the course to the caucuses.

That’s plenty of time. After all... tomorrow is another day.