A few scattered thoughts about tonight's debate:
Jeb Bush and Rand Paul had good nights. Jeb's delivery was stronger than in past debates. He was more forceful and articulate. Whether one agrees with him or not, Paul made himself a major player in the debate over foreign policy, and his attacks on Rubio have earned him plaudits from some on the right. It's unclear whether these better performances will translate into a bump in the polls, but Bush's numbers especially bear watching.
Cruz was smart not to attack Trump. Attacking Trump risks dividing the outsider-leaning conservatives that Cruz will need to win the primary. Cruz has done well by outlining his own vision and cultivating networks of conservative activists. That strategy has paid dividends so far.
Trump was also smart not to attack Cruz. Earlier this week, Trump's criticisms of Cruz led to a lot of pushback from conservative talk radio--his campaign does not need that kind of criticism.
A strong debater, Rubio faced some attacks from Cruz and Paul and handled them with aplomb. Time will tell whether the discussion of immigration undermines Rubio's polling support in the days ahead. Rubio remains in a strong position, but the growth of Christie and a possible Bush revival might be causing his team some heartache.
I'll leave you with this passage from Jonathan V. Last's take on the debate:
Here's what I mean by that: Either Donald Trump is going to be the nominee, or he's going to be Howard Dean. My money is on the latter. But what people forget is that Howard Dean remade the Democratic party even in his defeat. Many of the Deaniacs from 2004 never materialized at the polls. But they didn't exactly melt away into the countryside. Those activated, passionate Dean-supporters became that backbone of the Obama insurgency that diverted the party from Third-Way Clintonism. There is no Barack Obama without Howard Deand. In many ways, Obama is really Dean 2.0.
In that sense, even if Trump is not the nominee, it seems likely that he will have exerted a large pull on the trajectory of Republican party by creating a totally new coalition of voters around a new set of nationalist ideas. And like the Deaniacs, his supporters might not disappear even if he loses this race.
Which means that a politician who wants to lead the party going forward can't dismiss Trump's nationalism with a wave of the hand. He'll be someone who identifies why people are sympathetic to Trump, can convince those people that he understands their concerns, and manages to synthesize Trumpism with the more traditional conservatism of the party.