Debate Night: Win, lose or draw

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MILWAUKEE -- The fourth Republican presidential debate is done and there weren’t any earthquakes. But in the more than a month until the next contest, there will be lots to consider.

The biggest winner of all was the smaller stage. The reduction to the still-sizable eight podiums allowed for the moderators from the Fox Business Channel and the Wall Street Journal to pin down candidates on answers and delve deeper. Going forward, a return to the 10- and 11-person stages of the previous debates will be hard to imagine.

But among the candidates themselves, there were some winners, too. There were some who just about broke even and there was one loser.

Ben Carson - Carson came to the stage with the press and his rivals hot on his heels over alleged fabrications in his biography. His succinct response to that (with an elbow thrown Hillary Clinton’s way over her Benghazi claims) was effective. But it was his new frontrunner status and cloak of favorability that did the trick. None of his rivals went after Carson on that subject or anything else. Carson also showed some improvement in talking about policy and closed with a statement about the suffering in everyday America that could have melted the stoniest heart. Those who want this campaign to be about resume measuring will have to wait a while longer yet.

Marco Rubio - If the 2016 race stays on this trajectory, it’s very easy to imagine Rubio ending up in at least the final paring and perhaps even as the nominee. And he did nothing to diminish that. Rubio took a tough line with Sen. Rand Paul on foreign policy when needed and managed a great soundbite on the necessity of welders versus philosophers. But most significant was that even as his nemesis Jeb Bush and antagonist Donald Trump wanted and maybe even needed to take Rubio on, they gave him latitude. Their deference is telling. Rubio’s rapid-fire eloquence and debate chops give him clout on stage that will help in the future and help make him sound like the authoritative spokesman for his party. Donors and voters wondering when to make the leap got a good reason on Tuesday.

Ted Cruz - Cruz is getting good at this. His skills as a courtroom lawyer and college debater are coming to bear in this very different format. Cruz’s killer line about illegal immigration and the demonization of those who take a harder line was his only extra-base hit for the night, but it was a good one. And, like Rubio, Cruz doesn’t need a change in the trajectory of the race right now. Cruz will have to start drawing sharper contrasts with his rivals, but for now, being an attractive second choice for most conservatives is a great place to be.

Carly Fiorina - No candidate matched the urgency of Fiorina. Her tone – serious and alarmed – matches the attitude of much of her party. Fiorina is also getting more adept at the humanizing moments that voters need to develop trust with a candidate. And her dismissive attitude with Trump seems to be the right setting. The question for Fiorina is always whether any activity makes her seem more or less plausibly presidential. The answer on Wednesday was pretty clear. She looked like a woman in it to win it.

Rand Paul - Remember that debates are about expectations and Paul’s could hardly have been any lower going into the night. And lo and behold, the candidate who had been expected all along suddenly appeared. He managed to be feisty without being such a pill. Will this get him back into the race? No. Will this, combined with his fellow libertarian’s win this month for Kentucky governor give him more time before he has to go home and tend to his Senate seat? Yes. And with his hewing closer to his family’s libertarian line there may be some of those old stirrings out in the countryside.

John Kasich -
Republicans have nominated a series of moderate candidates for president, but never a scold. Kasich’s harping on what’s wrong with his party and his fellow candidates wears thinner and thinner. A moment of exasperation can be attractive. A candidacy predicated on that emotion is not. Kasich forgets that Republicans right now are feeling vindicated in their conservative beliefs and are not in the mood to hear from Kasich’s Jeremiah corner.

Jeb Bush -
The good news for Bush is that his campaign could have ended in Milwaukee and it did not. Another performance as bad as the one with CNBC would have provoked an intervention from donors to stop the madness. But Bush was better and will be able to keep working on his reboot. The bad news is that his candidacy still remains a dubious bet. The threat of Bush’s super PAC laying waste to his rivals and Bush’s high negatives with voters will still bother his “nervous Nellie” donors.

Donald Trump - Trump mellowed out. Personalized attacks and invective language are his signature, and tonight he played nice. He did play to his strengths by talking up illegal immigration, but knocking Fiorina for interrupting was weird and so was advocating to allow Bush to respond in a candidate quarrel. Trump took his first tentative steps toward a new kind of candidacy and it may help broaden his support, but ultimately it seems unlikely that he changed many minds.

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