CHARLESTON, S.C. — The amount of time that each candidate spent being attacked in Thursday night’s Republican presidential debate was a fairly accurate barometer of the state of the race for the GOP nomination: the better a candidate’s standing, the more barbs he was forced to endure.
That left frontrunner Donald Trump on the receiving end of withering blows from Sen. Ted Cruz (Texas), who has nipped at Trump’s heels in recent Iowa polls and poses the largest threat to Trump’s bid.
Those attacks also reflected the more hysterical tone of the race of late, from Cruz’s citizenship and eligibility for the presidency to Trump’s "New York values," the term Cruz used as shorthand for Trump’s ostensibly left-of-center political outlook.
They also signaled the end of a longstanding unspoken truce between Cruz and Trump, who are competing for overlapping segments of a Republican electorate increasingly frustrated with what candidates frequently refer to as "the establishment."
The candidates widely considered the flag-bearers of that segment of the party, Gov. Chris Christie and Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), made up the second tier of candidates at the debate. They are both hoping for a strong showing in next month’s New Hampshire primary, which would boost their prospects dramatically.
The attack dynamic held true for them as well. They traded fewer jabs than Trump and Cruz, but sparred on their respective political records and traded one-liners as Christie cut off Rubio’s attempt to inject himself into a tax policy debate.
"You had your chance, Marco, and you blew it," Christie quipped to audience approval.
Christie and Rubio fought, Trump and Cruz fought, Rubio and Cruz fought. The other three candidates on stage were party to fewer, or none, of the evening’s back-and-forth.
The former Florida governor Jeb Bush,Gov. John Kasich of Ohio, and Dr. Ben Carson trained their attacks on President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. That left them in friendlier territory throughout most of the debate, with few attempts from their rivals to trip them up.
But it also left the three, generally considered in weaker positions than the debate’s four pugilists, without the buzz on social media and in the occasionally animated debate audience that steered post-debate coverage toward the top tier candidates.
Even when Bush went at Trump directly, calling his proposal to ban Muslims from the United States "unhinged," Trump declined to go on the counterattack. Instead, he simply defended his position.
Trump’s reluctance to respond directly to that charge revealed his sense of the state of the race. As he admitted in an exchange with Ted Cruz over the latter’s eligibility for president, his attacks on fellow candidates are spurred at least in part by the degree to which they threaten his frontrunner status.
"Why are you raising this issue now?" Cruz asked. Trump admitted, "Because now [Cruz is] doing a little bit better."
With just over two weeks until the Iowa caucuses, Trump and Cruz sense that they are rivals and that showed in their attempts to knock the other down a peg. Rubio and Christie know that they are competing for the same establishment support.