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GOP debate: Winners, losers, and then there's Trump

At the beginning of this year, Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus announced his vision for a "sound debate process," cutting the number of GOP stage gatherings to nine. It was all an effort to make sure that the eventual nominee didn't get excessively bloodied in a dragged-out primary process, as many thought Mitt Romney had been in 2012.

But the GOP's best laid plans didn't exactly get off to a smooth start, as the candidate roster swelled to 17, including one particularly difficult fellow named Donald. Thursday night's doozy of an opening debate, hosted by Fox News, proved it might not be getting any easier for the RNC. That said, by the conclusion of the hour and a half affair, there was definite movement.

Here are the winners and losers—as well as the man who makes conventional losing, winning.

Winners

John Kasich: The Ohio governor and former Fox News personality who barely snuck into the primetime debate lineup likely gained the strongest foothold from his performance in front of a home-state crowd. Kasich proved the deftest of the debaters at answering difficult questions, winning warm applause for his explanations of expanding Medicaid in his state and for addressing same-sex marriage.

Marco Rubio: The Florida senator who seemed to have been slipping into oblivion in recent months clearly studied for the test Thursday night, coming away as the prohibitive Mr. Policy. Not only did he find a way of turning the conservative corner on immigration reform, he made some of the night's more substantive remarks on the economy.

Read MoreGOP presidential hopefuls spar in fiery first debate

Hillary Clinton: The State Department e-mail scandal only was invoked once — ONCE! — and Donald Trump absorbed most of the night's ire. That's about as good as Clinton could have hoped for. Back to the drawing board for the RNC.

Losers

Jeb Bush: It started bad even hours before the debate began, when the Bush campaign accidentally posted its attack plan online. But that was the only evidence of an attack plan for Bush, who played it safe like the front-runner he currently isn't. Despite receiving the most questions (eight), Bush seemed to do the least with them.

Ben Carson: The neurosurgeon delivered the best line of the debate, noting that he was the only candidate to have removed half a brain, then adding: "Although, if you've been in Washington, you would think somebody had beat me to it." Unfortunately, it came at the very end of the debate, after he had been all but ignored.

Trump

Trump has to be graded on the scale of the parallel universe his candidacy exists in, which seems to reward obstreperousness, crassness, disdain for the media, disdain for his fellow candidates, and a commitment to not giving the derriere of a rodent. Despite a number of predebate reports foreshadowing a kinder, gentler Trump, the man delivered what everyone — his supporters, his detractors, the media—was looking for. And until Trump drops out of the race, it's all a win for him.

Correction: This version corrected the number of candidates.