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Latest GOP Debate Sets Stage for Final Stretch of Pre-Primary Campaigning

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 It would be a stretch to call last night's Republican presidential debate, hosted by CNN in Las Vegas, a game-changer.

“If you were looking for the fifth GOP debate of this topsy-turvy 2015 to upend or reshuffle this race, you came away sorely disappointed,” wrote Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report.

But with less than two months to the opening nominating contests in Iowa and New Hampshire, last night’s debate did reveal (or reinforce) a few themes to watch for as the GOP race intensifies.

Cruz and Rubio go head-to-head

While Donald Trump continues to lead in national polls, pundits have been hyping the potential for a clash between Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio as a conservative alternative to the political outsider. The night’s speaking time reflected the growing buzz around this rivalry: The two senators got to talk the longest, and spent a good portion of that time engaging with each other over immigration and foreign policy priorities. As noted by a National Review wrap-up, what’s particularly interesting is that the two focused on engaging with one another instead of challenging the frontrunner.

“Both senators… appear to have decided that one of two things is true: Either Trump will fall on his own, or he can be dealt with later,” writes RameshPonnuru

Trump (mostly) sticks to his script

For the most part, the frontrunner maintained an unusually low-profile — at least compared to earlier debates, where he seemed to be the main focus. Trump stuck by his recent pledge to at least temporarily ban Muslims from entering the United States and by most of his standard talking points.

He did walk back at least one recent suggestion that he might bolt from the Republican race to run as an independent candidate and — in a departure from his usual insults — said he’s “gained great respect” for Republican leaders and his fellow candidates.

Bush, Kasich and Fiorina try to rise above political bickering — with varying successes

As with earlier debates, Jeb Bush kept trying to cast himself as the levelheaded “adult” on stage. Bush directed most of his attention to Trump, describing him as a "chaos candidate" and casting him as a foil.

JohnKasich began the night by sharing with the crowd his daughter's remark that doesn't like politics because “there’s too much fighting, too much yelling." For the rest of the night, Kasich tried repeatedly to interrupt other candidates’ squabbling with pleas for more civility and a pitch for unity.

Carly Fiorina, later on, also tried to interrupt an argument between Cruz and Rubio by positioning herself above the bickering. She tried a few times to make her point — “This is why the nation is fed up…” — but wasn’t able to expand much more before the moderators ushered the conversation along.

Christie’s back in the big leagues, and trying to make the most of it

Tuesday’s debate marked a return to the main stage for Chris Christie, who was relegated to the so-called “undercard” debate last round. The New Jersey governor, who’s seen a resurgence in New Hampshire recently, tried to take advantage of the night’s national security focus by stressing (at least five different times) his past experience as a federal prosecutor.  This is a theme he's been stressing on the campaign trail in New Hampshire, and it's likely to continue as he keeps pushing for a comeback.

To catch up more on last night’s debate, you can read the full transcript from CNN. For the abridged version, NPR has a recap in less than 100 words and CNN has a recap that's just 90 seconds. For a "by the numbers" look at speaking times, topics mentioned and more, try this summary from Bloomberg. And for a closer look at the accuracy of some of the candidates' statements, try these fact-checks from AP and Politifact.