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Two old friends finally dropped the gloves. Others spent time trying to show up each other with a variety of "the only candidate to" do such and such claims. One of the front-runners seemed to barely show up at all.

With much of the crowded Republican presidential field in danger of becoming irrelevant, Wednesday's debate offered an important opportunity to shine.

Some, however, just seemed to fade farther away.

Viewers of the debate, hosted by CNBC, got treated to a spirited exchange that at times saw the candidates tearing at each other and at others united against two common opponents: Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton and a media they insisted is biased against the GOP.

In all, the night featured a decided set of winners and losers, built on moments golden and not-so-golden. A rundown:

ROCK 'N' ROLL RUBIO: The senator from Florida faced some fundamental character questions, namely about the votes he's missing while campaigning, and some personal finance missteps. Each time, Rubio deflected the challenges and focused on issues. "I'm not worried about my finances," he said in one exchange. "This debate needs to be about the men and women across this country who are struggling on a daily basis to provide for their families a better future that we always said this country is about."

Donald Trump and Ben Carson at the CNBC GOP Debate in Boulder, Colorado.
David A. Grogan | CNBC

"I still feel strongly the star of the night was Rubio. I think he did really well," said Greg Valliere, chief global strategist at Horizon Investments. "He was quick to come back on this charge by Jeb (Bush) he should resign. Whenever he talks about his family narrative he seems to have a more upbeat message, more Reaganesque, not negative."

Score Rubio a winner.

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PAGING DR. CARSON: A recent CBS/New York Times poll has Carson leading the field, sending Donald Trump into second place for the first time in months. At the outset of the debate, Carson promised to follow Ronald Reagan's 11th commandment: Thou shalt not speak ill about other Republicans. Carson, though, took the admonition to an extreme, refusing to take the bait on multiple occasions to at least set himself apart from the field. Moreover, at one point, he took a softball question about whether government should clamp down on pharmaceutical companies that gouge on prescriptions and turned it into an academic discussion on overregulation. Trump has recently taken to calling Carson "low energy," the same as Bush. It was hard to dispute that on the debate stage.

Score Carson a loser.

CANTANKEROUS CRUZ: Sen. Ted Cruz has never been one to shy away from speaking his mind, but he seemed especially on point Wednesday. He was able to drive home how his own background helps him understand the plight of middle America. He also scored comity points by joining Rand Paul in wanting to audit the Federal Reserve, while striking a chord with the hard right on his desire to eliminate the IRS.

Score Cruz a winner.

COMBATIVE CHRISTIE: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was forceful and erudite in hitting a core GOP value — crime — as well as a non-core value of developing alternative energy, particularly solar. And he was one of a multitude of voices that lashed out at debate moderators for being either overly aggressive in their questioning or not focusing as clearly on the issues.

Read More Christie: We should invest in all types of energy

In response to a discussion about fantasy football regulation, Christie ranted, "We have $19 trillion in debt, we have people out of work, we have ISIS and Al-Qaeda attacking us, and we're talking about fantasy football? How about we get the government to do what we're supposed to be doing?"

Cruz earlier used a question on the debt ceiling to rip the debate panel, saying, "the questions that have been asked so far in this debate illustrate why the American people don't trust the media. This is not a cage match." Rubio pounced as well, accusing the media in general of being a "super PAC" for Clinton.

Score Christie a winner and likely the only back-of-the-pack candidate with a chance, albeit low, to move up in the field.

TRUTH-CHALLENGED TRUMP: The Donald was there with all of his home-run lines about making the U.S. more competitive against China, Japan and Mexico. But all the notes he hit were familiar ones. Then, when challenged with statements he made in the past about making life tougher for immigrant workers, he denied criticizing Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, despite this published report and statements on his own web site to the contrary.

Score Trump neutral.

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BELOW-THE-RADAR BUSH: The former Florida governor needed to deliver a knockout punch to re-establish himself at the front of the field. He did little to make that happen. He did, however, engage in one of the more memorable moments of the night. He and Rubio have been friends for years, with the latter calling Bush a mentor. That may have ended for good Wednesday. "Marco, when you signed up for this, this was a six-year term and you should be showing up to work. What is it, like a French work week?" Replied Rubio: "Someone has convinced you that attacking me is going to help you." Ouch.

Score Bush a loser and the Bush-Rubio friendship a loser as well.

Read More Jeb to Rubio: You should show up to work or resign

THE FORLORN FIELD: The rest of the group — Mike Huckabee, Rand Paul, Carly Fiorina and John Kasich— each had moments and didn't do anything necessarily to hurt their chances, but also did nothing likely to get them into the front of the pack. Losers, all.

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that Greg Valliere now works at Horizon Investments.