Donald Trump holds forth as Sen. Ted Cruz looks on during Saturday night’s Republican debate in New Hampshire. (ABC News)

Viewers who tuned in Saturday night to the eighth GOP presidential debate, in New Hampshire, caught a subtler side of Donald Trump, who showed up for the occasion but mostly let his rivals take swipes at one another.

That is, except for an opportunity he seized near the event’s conclusion to give Ted Cruz what-for. In an article posted Sunday at The New Yorker, Amy Davidson described the moment:

Ted Cruz used his closing statement at Saturday night’s Republican Presidential debate, in Manchester, New Hampshire, to praise, in sonorous terms, his own political bravery. He had been told that opposing ethanol subsidies would be “political suicide”; he stood up anyway, and Iowa’s caucus-goers had put “country and our children above the cronyism and corporate welfare” to vote for him. It was a classic Cruzian set of lines, rendering his supporters as worshippers and his opponents as people of bad will. Cruz had just wrapped up when Donald Trump threw out an alternative explanation for Cruz’s victory in Iowa.

“That’s because he got Ben Carson’s votes, by the way,” Trump said. He was referring to the Cruz campaign’s dirty tricks in Iowa, particularly a concerted effort to persuade caucus-goers that Carson had dropped out of the race. (The assumption was that Cruz, a religious conservative like Carson, would be the second choice for many of them.) Trump half-sneered at Cruz, but it was, by his standards, fairly lightly done. He hadn’t gone after Cruz much personally during the debate, even when the moderators, ABC News’s Martha Raddatz and David Muir, began the proceedings by reading Trump a quote from Cruz saying that he, Trump, might drop nuclear weapons on Denmark. Indeed, Trump, despite a solid dose of talk about wall-building and oil-seizing, left most of the job of attacking his opponents to the others. They obliged, with the result that this Republican debate, like the previous one, and like the Iowa caucus, failed to winnow the field. Some contenders who had been looking strong looked weaker (Cruz, Marco Rubio), some of the weaker ones appeared stronger (Chris Christie, John Kasich, Jeb Bush), and Ben Carson, who seemed to miss his cue as the candidates took the stage, pledged that he would stay in the race almost as a sacred duty. And that duty included dealing with Ted Cruz.

Indeed, Christie appeared to make it his own mission to take Rubio down, and as The New York Times‘ Michael Barbaro described after the debate:

Mr. Christie, who as a presidential candidate has frequently suppressed his most pugilistic instincts, cast off any restraint and did what he does best: slice and slash.

He derisively called Mr. Rubio nothing more than a programmed deliverer of polished-sounding lines.

Seconds later, Mr. Rubio seemed to prove Mr. Christie right.

Mr. Rubio was already on the defensive. Pressed to prove that, despite his short time and lack of major accomplishment in the Senate, he had the experience and skills to be president, Mr. Rubio instead pivoted quickly to a well-rehearsed argument about President Obama’s liberal agenda.

Mr. Obama, he reasoned, though also a one-term senator when elected president, had actually proved to be a deft engineer of a misguided liberal agenda. The implication: Ideology, not experience, is what matters most in the White House.

But Mr. Christie had instructed the audience to listen for what he dismissively called the “memorized 25-second speech,” adding, with a twist of the knife, that it was “exactly what his advisers gave him.”

[…] As their back-and-forth grew testier, Mr. Rubio tried to interrupt Mr. Christie, repeating his accusation about the recent blizzard. But Mr. Rubio appeared somewhat uncomfortable. He smirked. He licked his lips. He fidgeted with his jacket.

And Mr. Christie kept punching.

Rubio missed his chance to turn Christie’s argument back on the New Jersey governor, who in previous debates had deflected direct questions by evoking the specter of Republican horror: a President Hillary Clinton.

At any rate, the NYT also posted this story Sunday noting how Rubio regained his composure in his subsequent campaign stops in New Hampshire.

James Hohmann of The Washington Post did some on-the-ground reporting about Rubio supporters’ reactions to Saturday night’s showdown, such as this feedback from 63-year-old retired postal worker Charlie Dancause:

“I thought he got killed,” said Dancause, who lives in New Boston, N.H. “Of course it raises questions.”

But the Navy veteran said he’s sticking with Rubio and offered a spirited defense after watching him at a town hall in a middle school cafeteria here Sunday afternoon.

“He bounced back,” said Dancause. “And today’s he smiling. He’s in with the crowd. He takes a licking and keeps on ticking. That’s what a politician needs to do.”

Rubio briefly acknowledged questions about his performance here but then blew right past them. Many criticized him for repeatedly saying that President Obama is trying to change America — with the same language and cadence — even as opponents such as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie mocked him for speaking in sound bites.

As for Christie, as well as the other governors in the 2016 GOP presidential race — former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and current Ohio Gov. John Kasich — the New Hampshire primary represents “do-or-die” time for their campaigns, as NBC News‘ Jane C. Timm noted:

After months of trailing in middle-of-the-pack obscurity despite relentless campaigning across the state, Bush fought back. He’s not alone, either: all three Republican governors who have lagged in the polls made a final stand last night, clawing their way into the spotlight in Saturday’s debate after a handful of encouraging days on the trail.

It couldn’t have come at a more crucial time for them: the three governors are facing a do-or-die moment on Tuesday. Armed with the kind of résumés that might have wowed the nation in any other year and campaigning heavily in a state that seemed likely to lift up their more moderate policies and executive experience, they’ve struggled in the polls against national front-runner Donald Trump and Rubio.

[…] Meanwhile, Kasich and Christie are both driving in the same lane, looking for a show of support that propels their campaigns beyond next Tuesday.

Those needing a brush-up, or just a quick run-through, from Saturday night’s debate can watch it all boiled down to one minute below (via ABC News):

–Posted by Kasia Anderson

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