As I predicted in the open thread, things got heated in New Hampshire last night. The candidates faced off with four interrogators, and we would be remiss if I didn’t point out what a great job our own Mary Katharine Ham did, getting several questions in with impressive poise. In fact, she got a bouquet of roses via Twitter from Jake Tapper.

As to the debate itself, I’ll get to the inevitable “winners and losers” summary at the end, but I wanted to share a few of my initial impressions I jotted down as the event played out.

Even if you didn’t want to watch the entire thing, the introductions alone were worth the price of admission. As they introduced the candidates on the right side of the stage, Christie and Cruz came out and took their places but there seemed to be some confusion on Carson’s entrance. One camera was showing the backstage area where they were waiting. Then they introduced Donald Trump who walked to the edge of the curtain and stopped. He didn’t come out on the stage. The moderator seemed confused, but went on to introduce Rubio and Bush who also came out to their stations. The camera kept going back to Trump, standing offstage waiting. I’ll confess that, just for a moment, I found myself wondering if Donald wasn’t planning some sort of epic “kiss my butt” moment where he turned around and left. That wasn’t the case, though.

After Bush came out, followed by Carson, the moderator repeated his introduction of Trump with the phrase, “and lastly, we welcome back to the debate stage, Donald Trump.”

Trump then walked out and took the center spot as the crowd applauded, but the backstage camera showed John Kasich standing behind the curtains, completely forgotten and looking lost. Chris Christie had to speak up and say something along the lines of, “I think you forgot Kasich. You want me to introduce him?” (ABC initially said that might have been Rubio but it sounded like Christie to me.)

They eventually brought out Kasich but I could tell we were in for a fun ride at that point.

One note on the crowd which I wanted to point out: after they asked Trump the first question he gave a long, fairly forceful answer and got only a smattering of polite applause. I noted at that time that this is a state where supposedly at least one third of the primary voters are Trump backers but they managed to fill the hall with folks who largely didn’t care for him very much. That seemed to change a bit, though, as the first hour of the debate wore on. During a highly charged exchange on North Korea and their missile launch last night, Trump gave an answer about Barack Obama not having a clue how to deal with that regime and by then he was getting some big lines of applause. That ebbed and flowed back and forth, though. Later, when he got some boos over eminent domain, Trump claimed (as I suspected) that he had trouble getting tickets to give out and the crowd really lit into him then. It made it sound like he was accusing the crowd of being mostly for the other candidates and they turned on him for a while. (Even if it was true.) On Twitter, I saw one of the senior GOP guys in New Hampshire, Al Baldasaro, confirming this and saying that Trump only got 20 tickets.

Another New Hampshire pol weighed in to say that all of the candidates got 20 tickets which made up 14% of the audience. The real question was the distribution of the other 86% which didn’t seem to fall in the direction of Trump supporters. I’ve seen others disputing that since then, but if you know Al Baldasaro you know that there’s not much that goes on in the New Hampshire GOP without Al having his finger on the pulse. I’m guessing we’ll hear more in the days to come over the ticket distribution.

Right out of the gate Martha Raddatz demonstrated that she was going to go after Ted Cruz in an almost personal way. When she asked him what he would have done about the North Korea missile launch and he said he would need access to the latest intelligence on it, she apparently didn’t like the answer. She said he had been very aggressive on Middle East issues, so would he or would he not order a preemptive strike on North Korea. The crowd actually began booing at that point, mostly at Raddatz.

RADDATZ: Well, let me ask you this, if you were Commander in Chief tonight would you have order the U.S. military to destroy that missile preemptively on the launchpad to prevent North Korea from becoming an even graver threat?

CRUZ: You know, at this point I’m not going to speculate on that without the intelligence briefing that any Commander in Chief would have, knowing what exactly is there.

(APPLAUSE)

CRUZ: One of the real problems…

RADDATZ: … Senator Cruz, let me tell you this, you have talked tough about the Mid-East, you haven’t gotten those intelligence briefings about that. Why not tell us whether you would preemptively strike a missile on a launchpad that threatens the U.S…

CRUZ: … Actually, with respect, I have gotten the intelligence briefings on the Mid-East. Those have been going on for many years. I haven’t gotten the intelligence briefing tonight on what North Korea’s doing because I’m here in new Hampshire. When you’re responding to an immediate incident, you need to know the intelligence of what’s occurring.

You can see how she was badgering Cruz, interrupting him and trying to get him to come off as some sort of rash, trigger happy warmonger. Cruz wasn’t having it, though, and came out on top of that bit of sparring.

As I anticipated in the debate thread last night, Rubio was a big target and the person swinging at him first and often was Chris Christie. He hammered on not being ready, having no record of leadership, running away from his immigration bill and everything else. He accused him of using the same sound bites and speeches and not giving substantive answers. In fact, he interrupted a couple of Rubio answers early on to jab him on prepackaged speeches yet again. The crowd was surprisingly warm to those attacks and lit up with applause when he hit Rubio. It was hard to tell if they were not big Rubio fans or they just didn’t like his answers.

I don’t want to drag this out to a novel length document, so let’s get to the winners and losers. While I’m probably the most surprised of anyone to hear myself say it, I’d have to give the trophy for biggest winner of the night to Chris Christie. The guy came in on a mission to take down Marco Rubio and he stayed on him like a bulldog. He scored a lot of points and had the crowd warming up to him, while Rubio seemed unsure of himself and rather meek in his responses.

I’ll bookend that verdict with the biggest loser of the night because that seemed to be Rubio. It’s not that all of his answers were bad, but he came across as tentative, hesitant and quick to fall back on his stump speech rather than digging into the material. Politico led with an article simply titled, Rubio Chokes, and that about sums it up. Part of the test is to look presidential and he simply didn’t manage it. Also, see McKay Coppins’ piece, Rubio Malfunctions.

Another winner is a less understated way was Ted Cruz. He didn’t draw as much fire and pretty much refused to go after Trump or Bush or anyone else on a personal level. He’s consistently one of the most effective debaters, making his points clearly and injecting a lot of humor where appropriate. The Hill has a summary of their views on the candidates last night and I think they summed up Cruz’s performance pretty well, saying he was, “characteristically fluent and authoritative in setting out his conservative stall for most of the debate.” Cruz really didn’t need to “win” last night. He just needed to avoid taking on water and I’d say he managed that just fine.

Donald Trump did what he had to do last night. As the frontrunner, he had the most to lose aside from Rubio and he managed to avoid any real disasters even with a decidedly hostile crowd. He toned down the personal attacks for most of the night and argued the issues well for the most part. He took some damage from Bush on the eminent domain thing, but that’s always going to be a tough sell for him in a conservative crowd. I don’t expect his performance to dampen his numbers much between now and Tuesday, though.

I’ll surprise myself again by saying that Jeb Bush probably had one of his best debates of the cycle, but compared to his previous outings that’s not saying much. He gave it a good run and didn’t make any notable mistakes that I saw, but aside from the aforementioned eminent domain scrum with Trump he mostly faded into the background. He needed a breakout night, not a break even one, and this was more of the latter as I scored it.

John Kasich took the high road as usual, trying to be Mr. Positive. He plays that angle very well and actually had a pretty good debate. He’s obviously still going for the moderate lane, which can have some appeal in New Hampshire so he didn’t hurt himself at all.

Finally there was Ben Carson. He got the sympathy vote over the Cruz confrontation in Iowa (which Cruz apologized for yet again in a gracious fashion) and that won him some applause. Most of the rest of his night seemed fairly forgettable, though. He didn’t really hurt himself, but if he was hoping for a gut shot performance to vault him back into the lead it definitely didn’t look like that happened.

Will any of this move the needle in the final 72 hours? We’ll know soon enough.

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