Sparks flew on immigration and defense spending in the fourth Republican debate Tuesday night, but few candidates came away as an obvious winner.
Real estate mogul Donald Trump and retired surgeon Ben Carson were the front-runners going into the debate, and some pundits said they expected their statuses to shift markedly after the event. In fact, every candidate in the prime time debate — including Florida U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, Texas U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, former HP CEO Carly Fiorina, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Kentucky U.S. Sen. Rand Paul — notched positive moments for their campaigns.
The "undercard" debate was much less explosive, with most of the back-and-forth coming from an argument between New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal. Those two governors disagreed over whether the Republicans need a candidate who is best positioned to defeat a Democratic opponent, or if conservative economic adherence is the most important attribute.
Just as Fiorina made a case for joining the top-tier of candidates when she successfully dominated the first GOP undercard debate, many pundits said the New Jersey governor successfully justified his presence at the main event next time around.
When Jindal criticized New Jersey's economic record, Christie refused to punch down, turning every question to Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton.
"I saw the most disgraceful thing I've seen in this entire campaign a few weeks ago: Hillary Clinton was asked the enemy she's most proud of, and she said Republicans," Christie said in his closing comments. "In a world where we have Al-Qaeda and ISIS, the mullahs in Iran and Vladimir Putin, the woman who asks to run and represent all of the United States says that her greatest enemies are people like you in this audience and us here."
For what it's worth, CNBC's unscientific online poll found that 62 percent of readers said Christie had won the early debate, as of midnight ET.
Conservative tax policy
Significant differences arose during the night's discussions of immigration, banking regulation and foreign policy. There was little argument, however, on the topic of taxes, as candidates' plans all pointed in the same direction for the country.
"What I notice most in this debate is that all the candidates agree that we need tax reform that lowers marginal tax rates to create jobs. All the candidate's plans allow expensing for business investment and a territorial tax system," anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist told CNBC in an email as the debate wrapped up. "The tax debate shows the consensus that exists in the Republican Party on tax reform...something that was not true in 1980 or 1990."
As for specific candidates, Norquist highlighted Trump's proposed 15 percent corporate rate, which "set the pace."
"Consensus used to be to cut the corporate income tax to 25 percent....now 15 percent is the new 25 percent," he added.
Some of the evening's biggest bursts of applause came from calls to either cripple or dismantle the Internal Revenue Service. Christie called to fire a "whole bunch of IRS agents," and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee's explained that his tax plan would mean eliminating the office entirely.
In the top-tier debate, Cruz said his spending plan would eliminate the IRS (along with the Commerce Department, the Energy Department, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development).
Donald Trump haters
While some pundits said Trump faded during intensive policy discussions, the billionaire businessmen still logged the third-most speaking time during the debate (behind Cruz and Kasich). But unlike other debates when Trump had been rough with the other candidates, he regularly sought to be the peacekeeper on Tuesday — even telling Kasich "you should let Jeb (Bush) speak" during an exchange on immigration.
In fact, even though several candidates criticized his policies, the real estate mogul rarely responded with any negativity — making it challenging to depict him as a candidate of angry populism, as many of sought to do.
When Bush jumped on Trump's foreign policy comments — saying "Donald is wrong on this, he is absolutely wrong on this" — the front-runner barely batted an eye at the man who used to be his most regular target.
Some pundits asked if Tuesday's debate, sponsored by The Wall Street Journal and Fox Business Network, marked a turning point for the famously blustery billionaire.