December 16, 2015 9:49 AM EST

Republican presidential candidates faced off Tuesday night in the final contest of 2015. But before the race takes enters a holiday slumber, here are your winners and losers:

Winners: Marco Rubio was the target of opportunity during the debate, drawing fire from across the field, but he appeared to get the best of primary rival Ted Cruz in several exchanges. But a forcible rehashing on his support for the Gang of Eight immigration bill may come back to bite him. His strong opening statement and answers on foreign policy lent themselves to his authority on the subject matter. Cruz tussled with Rubio, but was playing to a different audience: the conservatives in Iowa. Already leading in the state after consolidating their factions, Cruz reinforced his credentials at every turn, maintaining his fragile lead. But it’s going to be a long six weeks. Chris Christie, likewise, found himself talking to a different audience—primary voters in New Hampshire—when he repeatedly broke the fourth wall to address viewers at home. Christie’s focus on his executive experience and national security lends itself to success in the veteran-heavy state, and he likely added to his surge in the polls. And Jeb Bush had his best debate of the cycle, with a forceful critique of Donald Trump’s controversial statements and lack of foreign policy experience. The offensive proved to his supporters that he’s still got fight left in him, while allowing him a venue to shine without stepping on the Cruz and Rubio battle—it’s just not clear it will resonate with voters.

Category unto his own: Trump has thus far defied the laws of political gravity this cycle, rising after every outlandish and offensive statement. Tuesday’s debate may prove to be no different, but it was the first meeting in which he seemed to be just another candidate, rather than the center of attention. Trump’s bumbling answer on the nuclear triad proved to be an embarrassment that he will have to work to recover from. But Trump lovers likely found little to dislike in his performance, while his critics still aren’t fans.

Losers: Ben Carson faced the toughest test going into the debate—proving a former neurosurgeon has the chops on foreign policy to be commander in chief—and he failed once again. After high profile campaign missteps, Carson didn’t alter his downward trajectory with his meandering responses. Rand Paul had one of his best performances of the cycle, with strong critiques of Rubio, but after making the stage only after CNN adjusted its rules, Paul had done little to boost his own effort. His frequent interruptions and lecturing tone also probably won’t do him many favors. Carly Fiorina had yet another debate where she failed to live up to precedent, failing to earn a desperately-needed moment in which to reignite the fire she sparked within many GOP voters just a few months ago. Still focused on her own biography, she seemed unwilling or unable to engage deeply on foreign policy issues.John Kasich sought to play the unifier, calling for both sides of the fractured party—and fractured nation—to set aside their differences. But it was a message that proved to be ill-suited for the moment, when GOP primary voters are looking for drama and candidates to reflect their angst. The Undercard have participated in five debates in 2015, with little to show for themselves. The policy discussion between Lindsey Graham, Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, and George Pataki was rarely interesting and yielded no moments that would affect the broader GOP race, leaving many asking whether it would be the last time they have a moment on stage. Pataki isn’t even trying to qualify for most primary ballots and the question on reporters’ minds in the spin room was when will they step aside.

Here are your must-reads:

Must Reads

How Republicans Finally Got Under Donald Trump’s Skin
The GOP candidates position to be the Trump alternative [TIME]

What You Missed While Not Watching the Republican Debate in Las Vegas
TIME’s Michael Scherer breaks it down

Ryan Tells GOP There’s Agreement on Tax and Spending Bill
Last hurdle before holidays [Associated Press]

Chelsea Clinton to Ramp Up Campaign Events for Her Mother
TIME’s Sam Frizell on Clinton’s premier surrogate

Sound Off

“I have never supported legalization, and I do not intend to support legalization.” — Ted Cruz giving a legalese answer on whether he would support a path to legal status for the 11 million people in the U.S. illegally, taking his clearest position on the subject to date and establishing him outside the GOP mainstream

“Donald is great at the one-liners, but he’d be a chaos candidate and he’d be a chaos president” — Jeb Bush showing new fire against Donald Trump in the debate

Bits and Bites

Chris Christie Defends Call to Bar Syrian Orphans [TIME]

Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz Tussle Over Illegal Immigration [TIME]

A ‘Dreamer’ Activist Becomes a Citizen, but Her Fight Is Not Over [New York Times]

Rand Paul Hits Chris Christie on Bridgegate Scandal at Debate [TIME]

Donald Trump and Jeb Bush Spar on Muslim Ban at Republican Debate [TIME]

Lindsey Graham Turns The Princess Bride Into Debate Point [TIME]

Hillary Clinton Calls for More Surveillance to Fight Terror [TIME]

Ben Carson Calls for Investigation of Prominent Muslim Civil Rights Group [TIME]

Intelligence Agencies Say 2 Clinton Emails Were ‘Top Secret,’ But One Is No Longer [Politico]

 

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