Cruz also managed to deflect another line of criticism: a New York Times story about his failure to report a major bank loan during his 2012 Senate bid. Cruz dismissed the report as a "really stunning hit piece," and the debate cut to a commercial break before the moderators or his rivals were able to press him further.
Cruz may have gotten the better of Trump during their exchange about Canada, but Trump came out on top when the discussion turned to New York. Earlier this week, Cruz said Trump "embodied New York values," and Cruz followed up on Thursday by saying that "not a lot of conservatives come out of Manhattan."
Trump countered by praising the way the city responded after the 9/11 attacks. At one point, Cruz even applauded Trump's response. "I have to tell you, that was a very insulting statement that Ted made," Trump said, seemingly catching Cruz off guard. Beyond his exchanges with Cruz, no other candidate was able to land a clean hit on Trump.
While this wasn't Marco Rubio's best debate of the race, the senator from Florida logged a solid performance, yet again coming across as perhaps the most polished candidate on stage. He nearly stole the moment after the back-and-forth on Cruz's citizenship, saying, "I hate to interrupt this episode of Court TV, but I think we have to get back to what this election has to be about."
And toward the end of the debate, Rubio completely unloaded on Cruz, accusing him of flip-flopping on immigration.
"I appreciate you dumping your oppo-research folder," Cruz said.
"No, it's your record," Rubio responded, in a clip tailor-made for cable news.
Early in the debate, Rubio came after Chris Christie with both barrels, claiming the New Jersey governor supports parts of President Obama's agenda and has donated to Planned Parenthood. Christie, however, responded calmly and turned the tables by pointing to Rubio's past praise.
"I like Marco, too. And two years ago, he called me a conservative reformer that New Jersey needed," Christie said. "That was before he was running against me. Now that he is, he's changed his tune. I'm never going to change my tune."
Still, the flip-flopping charges Christie has recently faced won't go away anytime soon. How he handles them will go a long way in determining his fate.
As he deals with slipping poll numbers and turmoil among his campaign staff, Ben Carson is in desperate need of a turnaround. But that turnaround did not begin in South Carolina. He managed to crack a few memorable jokes—at one point, he said he could respond to a Jeb Bush answer because he had cited "everyone" on stage—but again gave meandering answers that were difficult to follow and showed that he still has not mastered foreign policy.
Carson needs a strong finish, if not a victory, in Iowa on Feb. 1, and Thursday's debate didn't help his case.