… Ted Cruz, and by acclamation. The moment that convinced these South Carolina voters? Cruz’ riposte to Donald Trump on birther theories, even while Cruz led it off by emphasizing that the debate should focus on more important issues. Looks like Cruz was wrong about that, but the focus group’s reaction to his rebuttal went almost literally off the chart:

Cruz also scored big when he blasted the Obama administration for the capture of 10 US Navy sailors by Iran, and the images gleefully published by Tehran of the Americans on their knees. “That’s absolutely terrifying,” one focus-group respondent told Luntz after the debate. Another, a veteran, added that Cruz and Trump “are focused on veterans issues better than anyone else.”

Due to a schedule conflict, I could not catch last night’s debates, but there does seem to be some consensus among those who did about the three big winners last night being Cruz, Trump, and Marco Rubio. Andrew Malcolm of Investors Business Daily feels that the field has been narrowed to three people in Iowa and perhaps the rest of the race:

1) Less than three weeks out from the Iowa caucuses, the field of realistic competitors for the party’s nomination, based on substance and polls, has been narrowed to three for this moment.

2) With arguably the exception of Ben Carson, who seems so often so congenially lost, the candidates have certainly honed their presentations in the 23 campaign weeks since that first party debate on Fox News in early August. They’ve moved into the closing argument stage for the last pre-Iowa caucus debate on Jan. 28, again on Fox News.

3) Most of the seven men on the main stage — Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, Donald Trump, Chris Christie, John Kasich and Carson — tried valiantly to drag their likely Democrat November opponent into the rhetorical struggle. …

Christie is knocking on the contender door. But for now atop the field are Trump, at 69 the oldest GOP candidate, older even than Hillary Clinton, and Cruz, at 45 second youngest by only five months to Rubio, 44. Trump and Cruz are virtually tied in Iowa polls, while the articulate, optimistic Rubio, as always, lurks nearby.

Each of them had brilliant moments in Charleston on the Fox Business Network.

Jeff Dunetz thinks it’s down to four, but that Trump had the best night:

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.

Guy Benson calls it a good night for the three at the top, but also picks Trump as the winner:

Though his performance was laced with characteristic policy ignorance and general incoherence (his answer on tariffs was especially bad, for instance), Trump had three shining moments that made last night’s event a success for him. First, his rejoinder to Ted Cruz’s “New York Values” barb — calling to mind New Yorkers’ magnificent response to the horror of 9/11 — was at once cutting and humanizing.  It was delivered with an air of disappointment, blended with the indignance of a man defending the honor of the city he loves. Very savvily played.  Later, when moderator Maria Bartiromo asked whether Trump could disentangle himself from and set aside his international business interests in order to prioritize the country’s interests as president, Trump gave what struck me as a deeply-felt, authentic answer: Sure, I’m proud of my company, and yes I’m very rich, with financial interests all over the globe. But if I’m president, that all stops. I’m in this for America. The presidency and our nation would be the one and only thing that matters to me. Even as someone who’s been very critical and cynical about Trump, I believed him here. A strong moment. Finally, Trump’s closing statement actually seemed prepared — even rehearsed! — for once. And it was very effective. He spoke of meeting with construction workers who were despondent and angry over the spectacle of Iran capturing and humiliating US sailors this week. In the post-debate spin room, the frontrunner said that “many people” had told him that last night marked his best debate showing of the cycle. Though he’s said virtually the exact same thing (always attributed to nameless others) after each and every forum this cycle, he was probably right this time.

The one consensus loser of the night appears to be Ben Carson. If so, the question will be who ends up with his voters. Based on style, one might expect them to go to Rubio, but based on the impulse for outsiders, it may be that those voters split between Trump and Cruz, too.