Why you should care

Because at some point, the entertainment has to stop, and the governing must begin.

It’s fitting that last night’s GOP debate went down at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California. Reagan’s name was everywhere: from pediatric neurosurgeon Ben Carson’s conversion story (Democrat turned Reagan Republican) to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie recalling casting his first vote ever for the president.

Reagan’s one place where the candidates could agree — that, and a shared distaste for Benghazi and the Iran deal. When it came to policy, we heard some interesting disagreements — immigration (starring: Gov. Jeb Bush, Sen. Marco Rubio and a good bit of Mr. Trump), medical marijuana (starring: Sen. Rand Paul, teenage Jeb Bush and Gov. Chris Christie) and even vaccines (starring: Dr. Carson, Mr. Trump and, for “Second Opinion” Sen. Paul, the ophthalmologist).

The big question, of course, is: Who wins? A tough call to make, given three hours and 11 of the 15 candidates sharing the stage. Here’s my rundown.

The Podium

The Donald had another great night: He was comfortable, unafraid of challenging others and full of humor — don’t forget his future Secret Service code name … “Humble.” He certainly benefited from Salem Radio Network’s Hugh Hewitt, who popped questions alongside CNN’s Jake Tapper. He is likely to stay on top. And what’s more, his top competitors — Bush and Carson — failed to shine.

Carly Fiorina was the other big winner. She was hyperspecific, jumped in — crucial, given that this was her first appearance among the high-polling candidates — and thoroughly effective in debating opponents from Trump (winning with a Megyn Kelly-esque quip: “I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said”) to Christie. She will rise. A particularly impressive moment: Fiorina had a great answer to Trump’s criticism of her time at HP, during which she oversaw large layoffs, and which ended in her getting fired as CEO. She looked tough. And voters learned more about her in another way, when she joined the fray of marijuana policy discussion to share about the death of her stepdaughter to drug addiction.

If we had to choose the likeliest four, she would be there along with Trump, Bush (legacy and money have their privileges, even if current poll numbers are weak) and … Ted Cruz. Indeed, the former Texas solicitor general was the third winner tonight. He got a lot of airtime and made the most of it, hitting hard on Planned Parenthood, the Iran deal and even Chief Justice John Roberts. Listen up to him on that last one: He is, after all, a former clerk to Chief Justice William Rehnquist.

Not in It to Win It

Several guys seemed to never truly hit their stride. Chris Christie got more airtime — a lot more than last time — but in the end, never offered a compelling reason why he would make a great GOP nominee or president. After all, he embraced President Obama four years ago, making him unlikely to be truly effective in using the president and Democrats as a foil.

Mike Huckabee is fun, but seems to just be having fun. He had none of the aggressive hunger to compete that you saw at various times from Rubio and Walker. And without that, it seems unlikely that he will emerge in the long run. On the other hand, Rick Santorum did win Iowa four years ago. You never know.

Squeezed … in the Middle

Who knew we’d say it, but … we need more Mitt! Gov. Bush did not do horribly, but he did not win either. Indeed, he just plain struggled to rebut against the Donald — though he did manage to get in a high-five! It seems weird to say, but the best thing that could happen to Jeb in the days ahead is for him to be more like Mitt Romney. For all of the criticism Mitt endured, he turned in some strong primary debate performances in 2012 — also on a crowded stage. He was specific, confident and a very good counterpuncher. Jeb needs some of that mojo.

Marco Rubio and Scott Walker both made a bid to stand out throughout the night. But neither broke through in the way that Cruz likely did. But thankfully for Walker, there’s no longer a sense that it is almost certainly over for him. He stayed in it for a bit. Rand Paul got a lot of airtime, but in the end didn’t seem to break through, either with big, compelling ideas or with an overall platform to excite voters.

Tailing Behind

John Kasich seemed worn down by the long night and almost disappeared in the second half. It will be interesting to see if his poll numbers are affected by this. The same goes for Ben Carson, who is simply not a compelling presence. In the end, he still seems likely to me to be a brief flirtation that fades to the back by New Hampshire.

Honorable Mentions

CNN won big. Just as Megyn Kelly and Facebook did great work last time, CNN killed it by adding Fiorina, extending to three hours and giving Jake Tapper the mic.

An earlier version of this story misstated Rand Paul’s profession.

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