GOP debate: Who won Trump-Cruz smackdown?

(CNN)CNN commentators and guest analysts in Iowa and New Hampshire offer their take on the latest Republican presidential candidate debate. The opinions expressed in these commentaries are those of the authors.

Tara Setmayer: Rubio's drop-the-mic moment

Tara Setmayer
It's no secret Sen. Ted Cruz is an excellent debater. We saw the gloves come off early. He eviscerated Donald Trump on the "birther" issue in a well-prepared, methodical way. Cruz rattled Trump in a way we hadn't seen before. He extracted an admission from Trump that he's only going after him now because of how close the polls are, and that if he lost, he'd happily "go back to building buildings if this doesn't work out." It made him look petty.
But while Cruz got the better of Trump early on, it didn't last.
    Trump effectively neutralized Cruz's momentum in his response to the "New York values" attack. Without a doubt, that was one of Trump's best moments of all the debates. Despite the ugliness early on, Trump showed rhetorical skill in a measured tone not often seen on the campaign trail. Trump also managed not to fade away the way he has in past debates. Bottom line, he didn't hurt himself, and his support will remain strong.
    And Cruz is not the only one who demonstrated strong debating skills. Marco Rubio came into this debate with the largest target on his back after taking incoming attacks from the other candidates vying for the consolidated establishment vote, mainly Jeb Bush and Chris Christie. More than once he inserted himself into exchanges with superior knowledge of the issues, from a vociferous defense of the Second Amendment to taxes to national security. He cleverly turned the immigration issue around, using what is usually a vulnerability for him to focus on how ISIS can manipulate our current immigration system and the threat it poses. Will that satisfy weary conservatives? That remains to be seen.
    The jabs between Cruz and Rubio started in the last debate with Cruz inflicting damage on Rubio. But not Thursday night. It was Rubio who threw down the gauntlet against Cruz in a fierce, 30-second, laser-focused listing of several policy flip-flops by Cruz. Rubio said "that's not conservative consistency, that's political calculation."
    Cruz attempted to rebut by claiming Rubio's attacks weren't true, but Rubio shot back, "That's your record." It was Rubio's drop-the-mic moment.
    As we get closer to Iowa, I suspect that won't be the last one.
    Tara Setmayer is former communications director for Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-California, and a CNN political commentator. Follow her on Twitter @tarasetmayer.

    Laura Belin: Cruz exits with barely a scratch

    Laura Belin
    Sen. Ted Cruz came to South Carolina prepared for battle and left with hardly a scratch. All the Republican candidates vowed to rebuild the military, but Cruz built a narrative arc, from an opening statement evoking 10 American sailors on their knees to a closing promise to service members, police officers, firefighters and first responders: "I will have your back."
    During the inevitable clash with Donald Trump over his status as a natural-born citizen, Cruz gave the master of insults a taste of his own medicine, mocking Trump for raising the issue because "his poll numbers are falling." Trump insisted the question was legitimate but spent the remainder of the debate mostly promoting himself, rather than challenging his main rival in Iowa.
    Sen. Marco Rubio delivered well-rehearsed talking points about Cruz's military budget votes, tax proposals and record on immigration policy. Cruz didn't break a sweat, repeatedly name-dropping Rep. Steve King, a hero to Iowa conservatives.
    None of Cruz's rivals hammered his failure to disclose a large loan from Goldman Sachs during his 2012 Senate campaign. The topic disappeared after Cruz played the victim of a New York Times "hit piece" on what he called a "paperwork error."
    More than anyone else on stage, Cruz benefited from the Fox Business Network's decision to exclude Sen. Rand Paul. In addition to offering a unique perspective on foreign policy, the senator from Kentucky would have highlighted some fights against the establishment, where Cruz was missing in action.
    Laura Belin is the primary author at the website Bleeding Heartland. She has been covering Iowa politics since 2007, writing as "desmoinesdem." You can follow her @desmoinesdem.

    Dean Spiliotes: Trump prevails on 'New York values'

    Dean Spiliotes
    It took about 30 minutes for the moderators to stir up personal conflict in what started out as an orderly Republican affair of Obama/Clinton bashing and hawkish one-upmanship. The resultant expected pairings of Donald Trump against Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio vs. Chris Christie, and a smattering of Jeb Bush as the occasional fifth wheel shaped the central dynamic of the debate.
    Trump again outmaneuvered Cruz on both citizenship and "New York values," and pivoted nicely in accepting the "mantle of anger" bestowed upon him by South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley.
    Rubio, meanwhile, exhibited urgency in the debate that would serve him well on the stump, while Christie will likely face the fact checkers on his support of Justice Sonia Sotomayor and Planned Parenthood.
    The meat of the policy discussion centered on a predictable consensus around more robust fighting of terrorism and ISIS, but for those who watched until late, there was some significant policy clashing on tariffs (Trump-Bush), and taxes and immigration (Cruz-Rubio).
    On balance, it was a good night for Trump and Rubio, an uneven performance by Cruz and Christie, and some solid moments for Bush. Meanwhile, John Kasich continued to do his own thing for New Hampshire, while Ben Carson was lost again on national security issues.
    Dean Spiliotes is a Southern New Hampshire University Civic Scholar and founder of NHPoliticalCapital.com.

    Christian Whiton: Good night for Cruz, GOP

    Christian Whiton
    Thursday's debate clarified that the GOP race is increasingly one between Ted Cruz and Donald Trump. And with the exception of a spat over what constituted "New York values," Cruz prevailed in most exchanges.
    Cruz showed humor in a response to "birther" claims that he is not qualified to be president because his American mother was in Canada when he was born -- a theory that is widely rejected by constitutional scholars. Joking as to why Trump has given new life to this crackpot theory, Cruz said to laughter, "Since September, the Constitution hasn't changed, but the poll numbers have."
    Trump's claim during the exchange that he "doesn't care" about the "birther" issue came across for what it clearly was: a lie. He rightly earned the loudest boos of the night -- remarkable since the audience consisted largely of party insiders who are hardly Cruz's constituency.
    Cruz skillfully turned a question about a financial reporting omission to a swipe at the media. He landed a solid blow on The New York Times, which conservatives love to hate, by turning the paper's attack into a credential. Anytime a GOP candidate appears to be at war with the media is time well-spent.
    Trump also stumbled without anyone's help on a question about trade with China. Beijing is an unfair trading partner, but Trump's solution of a steep tariff would raise prices for American consumers, decrease U.S. exports once China retaliated with tariffs of its own and not actually change Beijing's behavior.
    Among the pro-establishment candidates, Chris Christie probably gained slightly against Marco Rubio, who had been poised to gain the establishment mantle from a floundering Jeb Bush. Rubio came across as humorless and earnest to the point of being insufferable. Christie was confident, funny, and his description of his accomplishments seemed less self-referential than usual.
    Trump was still strong in some of his retorts, but he was often on the defensive. He is getting more detailed in his responses and using fewer of his trademark vague answers on policy issues (other than on Muslim immigrants). The hope of some that Trump would be a Republican equivalent of Democrat Howard Dean in 2004 -- an unusual candidate who polled well only until the actual voting began -- is looking more remote. The big question remains whether a possible Cruz victory in Iowa next month will deflate Trump in other states where his lead in polls remains significant.
    Overall, the GOP had a good night. Voters have several viable and appealing options that represent very different approaches to governing. The disappointing part of the debate was a lack of clarity by the candidates on radical Islam. There was much talk about ISIS and the tool violent jihadists prefer: terrorism. But there was no talk about undermining the political ideology that animates not only terrorists but also those who work to spread Islamist tyranny through political and cultural means -- including mass migration.
    There will be endless war and terrorism until a president gets this right, and voters would appreciate ideas other than military solutions and vague talk about restoring alliances.
    Christian Whiton is a former deputy special envoy for human rights in North Korea for the George W. Bush administration. He is president of the Hamilton Foundation; a principal with DC Advisory, a public policy consultancy; and the author of "Smart Power: Between Diplomacy and War."

    Maria Cardona: No way to appeal to the mainstream

    Maria Cardona
    It was a political ménage a trois! Trump vs. Cruz vs. Rubio, with most of the action between Trump and Cruz. But even in his first breath, Cruz gave Americans a clear window into what a Cruz presidency would bring us. War. He stated unequivocally that were he our commander in chief today, we would be at war with Iran right now. Now that is thoughtful, calm, steady leadership!
    But alas, none of the other candidates was any better.
    That issue aside, Cruz dealt very well with the question about whether his candidacy is legitimate because he was born in Canada. Fueled by the moderators' questions, Trump was direct and harsh. But Cruz handled it with humor and demonstrated why he is considered a gifted debater. It doesn't mean the issue is off the table for him -- it seems Trump's pushing this issue has been a drag on Cruz's poll numbers.
    Trump did well rebuking Cruz's insulting comments about "New York values." It was perhaps Trump's greatest moment of the night. For the rest of the debate, Trump was Trump, and for now that is enough for him to keep and even widen his lead.
    Not to be left out, Rubio chimed in angrily much of the time, especially toward the end when he and Cruz went at it. But despite being seen by many commentators as a top-tier prospect, he has not yet convinced voters they need to put him on the clear path toward victory.
    Chris Christie did himself some good and had a great comeback to Rubio's attack on him as a liberal, using Rubio's own words against him. He demonstrated why Rubio is nervous. They occupy the same space in the GOP, and there is only room for one of them. Regardless, it is difficult to see past Christie's appeal in New Hampshire or outside of the Northeast.
    Every time Ben Carson spoke, it reminded people he was still there. His time at the top of the polls is over.
    Jeb Bush was decent and spoke about details. But sadly for him, Republican voters made their decision about him months ago, and they are not going to change their minds. He reminds the GOP grass roots of everything that has made them fume about the Republican establishment. And they are unforgiving. He is done.
    And Ohio Gov. John Kasich, as in most debates, was good, steady and made sense. Which is why he will not make it out of the GOP primary.
    Overall, Americans saw more of the same from the Republican debate Thursday night. Personal attacks on each other, and plenty of evidence-free, fictional shadow thrown at Democrats. Facts do not matter to this crowd. On guns (more!), on immigration (none!), on the economy (tax cuts for corporations and rich people!)
    All that will work for right-wing primary voters. But come the general election, America's mainstream, diverse coalition of voters will make them pay.
    Maria Cardona is a political commentator for CNN, a Democratic strategist and principal at the Dewey Square Group. She is a former senior adviser to Hillary Clinton and was communications director for the Democratic National Committee. She also is a former communications director of the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

    Dante J. Scala: Rubio finds his moments

    Dante J. Scala
    Thursday night's debate emphasized the distinction between the "what might be" candidates, and the candidates who went home thinking about what might have been.
    In the latter category, Chris Christie was both forceful and articulate. But he was served several reminders of how difficult it will be to win the nomination, saddled with his notable departures from party orthodoxy. Jeb Bush and John Kasich, meanwhile, both performed quite well -- for a Republican debate taking place in 2000. And Ben Carson continues to present himself as someone Republicans like but will never nominate.
    In the former category, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and Donald Trump played on another level. At times, Cruz acted and sounded like the front-runner for the nomination -- beginning and ending his debate by playing the commander-in-chief card, and making Trump look small during a back-and-forth about Cruz's eligibility to be president.
    Trump is a candidate for the nomination now, no longer a novelty. He had strong moments, including his invocation of 9/11 in response to Cruz's declaration that Trump held "New York values." (I do wonder, though, how Trump's sincere Manhattan sentiments will play in Iowa.) And meanwhile, Rubio continues to pick his spots and find his moments in each and every debate. To me, he still seems a good bet to survive and advance from the early contests.
    Dante J. Scala is an associate professor in political science at the University of New Hampshire and the co-author of "The Four Faces of the Republican Party: The Fight for the 2016 Presidential Nomination."

    Raul Reyes: Trump acts like a grown-up -- for once

    Raul Reyes
    In the first GOP debate of 2016, the stakes were noticeably higher, as evidenced by the sharp words and elbows on display in South Carolina. Having fewer candidates on the stage (Sorry, Rand! Bye, Carly!) meant that viewers were able to focus more on this group of aspiring presidential nominees.
    So what did we learn from this debate? We learned these gentlemen have a dark, pessimistic view of a country with a booming stock market, a significant drop in the number of uninsured people, low gas prices and a growing economy. We learned that this crop of hopefuls wants to bomb ISIS. We learned that they seem to hate President Barack Obama and that they love guns.
    So much for the whole "vision thing."
    Meanwhile, in a little over two hours, there were plenty of insults hurled at each other, Hillary Clinton, Sonia Sotomayor, Muslims, immigrants, China and New York City.
    The winner of the debate was Donald Trump. When Ted Cruz launched his attack on what he derisively termed "New York values," Trump hit back in an unexpectedly moving and thoughtful way. He reminded Cruz that after 9/11 New Yorkers came together and immediately began rebuilding. He recalled the "smell of death" that hung over downtown Manhattan after the World Trade Center attacks. "The people in New York fought and fought and fought," Trump said. His heartfelt words, free of the characteristic Trump bluster, seemed to deflate Cruz, who for once had no comeback. Bravo to Trump for sticking up for the greatest city in the world -- and for having a rare grown-up moment.
    In response to Cruz's snide comment that "not a lot of conservatives come out of Manhattan," Trump invoked the name of William F. Buckley, conservative icon and founder of the National Review. He might have also mentioned Antonin Scalia, David Koch and the Goldman Sachs bankers who helped fund Cruz's campaign. Trump also did well in the discussions on trade, taxes and corporate inversion.
    The loser of this debate was Cruz. Not only did Trump shut him down over his divisive anti-New York comments, Marco Rubio ripped into him for allegedly flip-flopping on everything from immigration to farm crop insurance to the military. The best Cruz could muster in response was, "At least half the things that Marco said were false." (What about the other half?!) As these two sons of immigrants argued over who could be tougher on immigrants, the real winner was ... again Trump. He managed to stay above the fray and let Rubio and Cruz attack each other. Well played by The Donald.
    Overall, the questions by the Fox Business Network anchors seemed on the softball side. And if only someone had asked Cruz and Rubio why they favor special refugee status for Cubans but not for Mexicans or Central Americans.
    A special dishonorable mention for the evening goes to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. He showed unbelievable disrespect for President Obama by calling him "a petulant child," which is rich coming from someone whose administration stands accused of shutting down the busiest bridge in the world as part of a politically motivated vendetta. Christie also stated, "We're going to kick (Obama's) rear end out of the White House." Note to Christie: Rudeness and bullying are not presidential.
    Raul A. Reyes is an attorney and member of the USA Today board of contributors. Follow him @RaulAReyes.

    Tim Hagle: Lively debate won't move the needle

    Tim Hagle
    The latest Republican debate was a fairly lively affair. As expected, Ted Cruz and Donald Trump mixed it up over whether Cruz was a "natural-born citizen," with Cruz getting the better of the exchange. Cruz's "New York values" comment also came under discussion, and Trump got the better of Cruz by invoking 9/11.
    Most expected Rubio to take fire from some combination of Jeb Bush, Chris Christie and John Kasich, but he only had one significant exchange with Christie, who responded successfully. Cruz and Rubio, meanwhile, got into it with each other a couple of times -- once over taxes and a second more intense exchange on immigration.
    The candidates had ample opportunity to discuss a variety of important issues, and most of them did fairly well. Trump was more specific in some of his answers in this debate, though the audience booed him several times. Cruz and Rubio did well, as they have in the past. Bush tried harder to be more forceful, but it didn't seem completely successful. Christie also did well with his more direct style.
    Ben Carson and Kasich didn't make any major mistakes but also didn't do much to improve their position.
    A good debate, but there probably won't be much movement based on it.
    Tim Hagle is a political science professor at the University of Iowa and author of the "Iowa Voting Series." Follow him @ProfHagle.