With the possible exception of Rand Paul who “took his ball and went home crying,” many observers where happy that Thursday night’s GOP debate in South Carolina was limited to seven candidates. With seven each candidate would have more time and voters would have the opportunity to learn their policy differences.

The Fox Business Network debate did not turn out as promised. It wasn’t a seven person debate, for the most part it was two, two person debates;  Trump vs. Cruz, Christie, vs. Rubio. And the presence second two was not as memorable as the first two.

Even the time each candidate spoke made it seem like two contests of two. Cruz and Trump had approximately the same amount of debate time (Cruz 17.52, Trump 17.12), as did Christie (14:25) and Rubio (14:19)

Sure the other three candidates were there, and some even had their moments but most of the evening was a battle between the New York billionaire and the Texas Senator.

According to Frank Luntz’s focus group, Ted Cruz was the big winner, according to this observer the victory was not that clear. For any observer who thought that this would be the debate where Donald Trump finally hit the wall and crashed they were horribly disappointed. Those who thought every candidate would spend their time pummeling Ted Cruz into oblivion they too went to bed on Thursday with their expectations unrealized.

In this debate, Ted Cruz became the first candidate to go against Donald Trump and come out of it with his head still on.

Like the previous Fox Business debate for the most part the moderators did a great job in asking important policy questions, even the two questions that Cruz objected to (his eligibility and the unreported loan) were fair game.

Ted Cruz’s best moment by far was the exchange about his eligibility

You know, back in September, my friend Donald said that he had had his lawyers look at this from every which way, and there was no issue there. There was nothing to this birther issue.

Now, since September, the Constitution hasn’t changed. But the poll numbers have. And I recognize — I recognize that Donald is dismayed that his poll numbers are falling in Iowa. But the facts and the law here are really quite clear. Under longstanding U.S. law, the child of a U.S. citizen born abroad is a natural-born citizen.

If he had stopped there his answer would have been perfect. But he continued with explaining that Trump’s mom was born in Scotland, which as Trump explained was totally irrelevant because The Donald was born in Queens, New York.

But he finished that segment strong after Trump corrected him and suggested he get a declaratory judgment (something I have been told that the supreme court doesn’t do). Cruz’s answer was:

Well, listen, I’ve spent my entire life defending the Constitution before the U.S. Supreme Court. And I’ll tell you, I’m not going to be taking legal advice from Donald Trump.

And when later Trump suggested that if/when he won the nomination he couldn’t pick Cruz as his VP because of the birther issue and the possibility of a Democratic Party lawsuit. Cruz’s response was that when he became the nominee, he could pick Trump as his VP and if the Democrats sued and won then Trump would get what he wanted.

Cruz’s response to the NY Times reported loan scandal may have ended that issue for good. There was no intention to obfuscate. The loan which was accidentally left off his FEC filing was reported in every other financial filing made public at the time.

Over all with the exception of one exchange Trump seemed to get the better of his “friend.” Oh and by the way, they might have called each other friends during the debate, but that bromance is long gone.

Trump’s best moment by far was the NY values exchange with Cruz. The Texas senator made the comment a few days ago and when he was asked about it during the debate, he did a horrible job in explaining it. He should have started with “liberal values,” but instead began with:

Cruz: You know, I think most people know exactly what New York values are.

Bartiromo: : I am from New York. I don’t.

Cruz: What — what — you’re from New York? So you might not.

He eventually got around to Trump’s former support of liberal positions but it was too late.

And when Trump had his chance respond he delivered a powerful blow:

And just so — if I could, because he insulted a lot of people. I’ve had more calls on that statement that Ted made — New York is a great place. It’s got great people, it’s got loving people, wonderful people.

When the World Trade Center came down, I saw something that no place on Earth could have handled more beautifully, more humanely than New York. You had two one hundred…you had two 110-story buildings come crashing down. I saw them come down. Thousands of people killed, and the cleanup started the next day, and it was the most horrific cleanup, probably in the history of doing this, and in construction. I was down there, and I’ve never seen anything like it.

And the people in New York fought and fought and fought, and we saw more death, and even the smell of death — nobody understood it. And it was with us for months, the smell, the air. And we rebuilt downtown Manhattan, and everybody in the world watched and everybody in the world loved New York and loved New Yorkers. And I have to tell you, that was a very insulting statement that Ted made.

Reader may want to take what I am about to say with a grain of salt, as I am a New Yorker and like Trump I was in NY on 9/11 saw the buildings go down and lived through the aftermath. In other words, I hope not but I may be a bit biased in this opinion. But IMHO that was not only  Trump’s best response of the night, but his best moment in any of the six debates so far.  It seemed legitimate, and heart felt. And Cruz seemed to look pained after The Donald responded.

Now what I don’t know and would like to hear from readers in the comment section is whether or not Trump’s answer played outside New York. Did it work for people who aren’t as emotionally attached to the attack on the World Trade Center? The answer to that question may be answer to who won the debate.

Whether Trump won or lost, one thing is clear he has matured as a politician. At the beginning of his campaign he tapped into voter anger, but with the answer on New York values and with his closing (below) he connected with voter emotions:

I stood yesterday with 75 construction workers. They’re tough, they’re strong, they’re great people. Half of them had tears pouring down their face. They were watching the humiliation of our young ten sailors, sitting on the floor with their knees in a begging position, their hands up.

And Iranian wise guys having guns to their heads. It was a terrible sight. A terrible sight. And the only reason we got them back is because we owed them with a stupid deal, $150 billion. If I’m president, there won’t be stupid deals anymore.

We will make America great again. We will win on everything we do. Thank you.

Marco Rubio started out very strong and gave a great debate, however he may have been over shadowed by Cruz and Trump.  His best moment was his first when he went after both Obama and Clinton:

Yeah, I would go, first of all, one step further in this description of Hillary Clinton. She wouldn’t just be a disaster; Hillary Clinton is disqualified from being commander in chief of the United States.

Someone who cannot handle intelligence information appropriately cannot be commander in chief and someone who lies to the families of those four victims in Benghazi can never be president of the United States. Ever.

On the issue of Barack Obama, Barack Obama does not believe that America is a great global power. Barack Obama believes that America is a arrogant global power that needs to be cut down to size. And that’s how you get a foreign policy where we cut deals with our enemies like Iran and we betray our allies like Israel and we gut our military and we go around the world like he has done on 10 separate occasions and apologized for America.

(…) When I’m president of the United States, we are going to win this war on ISIS. The most powerful intelligence agency in the world is going to tell us where we are, the most powerful military in the world is going to destroy them. And if we capture any of them alive, they are getting a one-way ticket to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and we are going to find out everything they know.

He had some great lines too, his best came after the Trump/Cruz exchange discussion on whether the courts would question Cruz’s eligibility, “I hate to interrupt this episode of Court TV.”

Rubio had a good moment talking about about Cruz’s tax plan describing it as a VAT, and got lucky because immigration the issue he is most vulnerable on came in over time (the debate was supposed to end at 11PM Eastern, but ended at 11:25. It was well after 11 when  Cruz and Rubio finally fought over immigration and I am not sure how many people were still watching at that point.

Rubio’s worst moment was Chris Christies best.  Rubio was asked about his recent attacks on the NJ Governor.

Rubio: So I just truly, with all my heart belief, I like everybody on the stage. No one is a socialist. No one here is under FBI investigation. So we have a good group of people.

Cavuto: Is he [Christie] a liberal?

Rubio: Our next president…

Cavuto: Is he a liberal?

Rubio: Unfortunately, Governor Christie has endorsed many of the ideas that Barack Obama supports, whether it is Common Core or gun control or the appointment of Sonia Sotomayor or the donation he made to Planned Parenthood. Our next president, and our Republican nominee can not be someone who supports those positions.

Rubio played it kind of nice, but he forgot that Christie is from New Jersey, they don’t “do” nice.  He said:

I stood on the stage and watched Marco in rather indignantly, look at Governor Bush and say, someone told you that because we’re running for the same office, that criticizing me will get you to that office.

It appears that the same someone who has been whispering in old Marco’s ear too.

So the indignation that you carry on, some of the stuff, you have to also own then. So let’s set the facts straight. First of all, I didn’t support Sonia Sotomayor. Secondly, I never wrote a check to Planned Parenthood.

Third, if you look at my record as governor of New Jersey, I have vetoed a 50-caliber rifle ban. I have vetoed a reduction this clip size. I vetoed a statewide I.D. system for gun owners and I pardoned, six out-of-state folks who came through our state and were arrested for owning a gun legally in another state so they never have to face charges.

And on Common Core, Common Core has been eliminated in New Jersey. So listen, this is the difference between being a governor and a senator. See when you’re a senator, what you get to do is just talk and talk and talk. And you talk so much that nobody can ever keep up with what you’re saying is accurate or not.

When you’re a governor, you’re held accountable for everything you do. And the people of New Jersey, I’ve seen it.

And the last piece is this. I like Marco too, and two years ago, he called me a conservative reformer that New Jersey needed. 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. I like Marco Rubio. He’s a good guy, a smart guy, and he would be a heck of a lot better president than Hillary Rodham Clinton would ever be.

The remaining three candidates were little more than present. Ben Carson’s best (and only) moment was a joke. After a Jeb Bush answer where he kept mentioning all the candidates:

Bush; And so everybody needs to discount some of the things you’re going to hear in these ads, and discount the — the back-and-forth here, because every person here is better than Hillary Clinton.

Carson: Neil, I was mentioned too.

A surprised Neil Cavuto said: “You were?”

Carson: Yeah, he said everybody.

As for Jeb Bush his best moment was a bad one, when he seemed to whine at Trump to change his mind about the Muslim ban, it seemed to reenforce what Trump said about Jeb being weak:

Donald, Donald — can I — I hope you reconsider this, because this policy is a policy that makes it impossible to build the coalition necessary to take out ISIS. The Kurds are our strongest allies. They’re Muslim. You’re not going to even allow them to come to our country?

The other Arab countries have a role to play in this. We cannot be the world’s policeman. We can’t do this unilaterally. We have to do this in unison with the Arab world. And sending that signal makes it impossible for us to be serious about taking out ISIS and restoring democracy in Syria.

So I hope you’ll reconsider. I hope you’ll reconsider. The better way of dealing with this — the better way of dealing with this is recognizing that there are people in, you know, the — Islamic terrorists inside, embedded in refugee populations.

John Kasich did not have a memorable moment.

Last night the GOP field was whittled down to four people, there may be more in the race but only four matter; Trump, Cruz, Rubio, and Christie. And the prediction here is that after the first three primaries, only those four will be left.

Looking at the debate from an unemotional point of view Cruz probably won the night, however Trump will probably have the biggest bounce from the debate.  Right now Trump is leading the field, and you don’t knock the leader off his perch on points, you have to knock him out. Trump wasn’t close to being knocked out. In fact, he showed incredible growth as a candidate. He’s lost part of the frothing lunatic approach. While Cruz may have out-pointed Trump, the billionaire had his best debate.

At Hot Air, Ed Morrissey analyzed the reactions to the debate, it’s a must read and can be found here. 

The next debate will be on January 28th on Fox News, just a few days before the Iowa caucus.