* Ted Cruz: Cruz had the single most memorable moment of the debate when, early on, he took on the CNBC moderators for the alleged "gotcha" questions they were asking. It drew a huge response in the debate hall and outside of it — and set the stage for a litany of attacks against the media from Cruz's rivals as the night wore on. Cruz, as he did in the first two debates, used his time wisely — driving home the message that he's the only guy with the backbone to stand up not just to Democrats but to leaders in his own party. Had Rubio not been so good, Cruz would be the story of the night.
* Chris Christie: For the second straight debate, Christie found ways to do more with less (time). His "Why the hell are we talking about fantasy sports" riff was outstanding and reinforced the idea of the New Jersey governor as a plain-spoken truth-teller. The question for Christie is whether it will make any difference; he continues to struggle to make up ground on the front-runners and is barely clinging to his spot on the debate stage.
* Donald Trump: This was a most un-Trump performance. With the exception of a smack-down of John Kasich in the early going, Trump was largely content to stay out of the fray and stick to his talking points when he did get a question. And, somewhat amazingly to me, he skated by without any real attacks by any of his rivals for the nomination. Yes, Trump has lost some momentum of late but didn't anyone notice he is still in first or second place in every single state and national poll? Hard to see him slipping from that perch as a result of tonight's proceedings.
* Lindsey Graham: For the second straight undercard debate, the senator from South Carolina was in a class of his own. He was funny and knowledgeable. But, it was in the undercard debate.
* Jeb Bush: Oh, Jeb. This was a really bad night for someone who needed a good-to-really-good night. Bush tried to drop the opposition research book on Rubio's head in the early going but got beat by someone who is just better at this stuff. After that swing and miss, Bush seemed totally cowed for much of the next hour. Sure, he made one good joke about his fantasy football team. But one good joke in a two-plus hour debate does not a victory make. And as for his campaign's chagrin at CNBC for his lack of speaking time, that feels to me like a smokescreen designed to distract people from his poor performance. Prediction: The buzz about whether Jeb is up to this race, which was at a relatively low level before tonight, is going to start getting a lot louder.
* Ben Carson: The doctor's first three answers of the night were close to nonsensical. He repeatedly seemed surprised when called on and struggled to articulate his points or use facts to help bolster them. He seemed out of his depth. Now, Carson's appeal — and what has made him the race's front-runner of late — is that he sounds and acts nothing like a polished politician. So, I suppose, by that logic, Carson might have had a less-bad night than I think.
* CNBC: Yes, some of the bashing of the network was simply politicians playing to the crowd. Republican voters think the media is biased, so when you as a candidate bash the media for being biased, you win. But, a lot of the questions the moderators asked seemed to be framed like this: "You said or did X controversial thing. Explain." I'm all for some of that — after all, politicians need to be accountable for their public statements — but it veered occasionally into "gotcha" territory.
One other note: No one wants to hear talking heads, um, talk over the candidates being introduced on stage. (I say this as a sometime talking head myself.) The candidates and how they interact with one another is all anyone cares about. Show that and get out of the way. Period. Full stop.
* Rand Paul: The senator from Kentucky seemed barely there. When he did get questions, which wasn't often, he recited stump-speech material without much vim or vigor. It's hard to see how Rand stays in the race all that much longer — particularly with the pressure he is getting from fellow Republicans to come back to Kentucky to defend his Senate seat next November.
* John Kasich: I get what the Ohio governor was going for. He knew he needed to stand out and figured the "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it any more" schtick was the way to do it. It worked — the first time. But, after the first 15 minutes, I felt like Kasich was just shouting at me and that the actual message — to the extent there was one — got lost.