The final Republican debate of the year was also among the most quarrelsome so far, with several candidates engaging in repeated shouting matches. At the center of it all were two separate duels: one between continued front-runner Donald Trump and the struggling Jeb Bush, and the other between Texas Senator Ted Cruz and Florida Senator Marco Rubio.
In fact, each of these four candidates largely ignored the five others on stage in order to target just one rival during the debate, according to an analysis by Bloomberg Politics. In all, Bush lobbed six full-frontal assaults on Trump, who he at one point dubbed a "chaos candidate," while the bombastic billionaire retaliated five times, with neither directly calling out any of the other seven candidates also onstage at the Venetian Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas. Similarly, Cruz went after Rubio four times—mostly regarding immigration—and was on the receiving end of three pointed barbs from the Sunshine State's junior senator.
Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, who narrowly made it into the primetime debate despite low poll numbers, attempted to raise his profile by attacking his fellow candidates more than anyone else—eight times in all—but in the end, not a single candidate chose to respond to him.
Two people who faced regular attacks throughout the debate were not even on the stage: President Barack Obama (mentioned 39 times, including 23 times by Cruz) and Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton (mentioned a total of 31 times).
Rubio vs. Cruz Dominate Airtime
The heated back-and-forths between Cruz and Rubio ultimately helped the pair dominate much of the debate proceedings, speaking longer than any of the other candidates, including Trump, who actually received more questions and rebuttals.
At the other end of the spectrum, former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina and Ohio Governor John Kasich—both candidates who only qualified thanks to friendly New Hampshire polls—failed to grab the spotlight as effectively as New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, whose campaign is newly resurgent thanks to a national security boost following this month's terrorism-tied shooting in San Bernardino, California.
Trump vs. Bush Duel Dominate Social Media
The night's online focus was clearly the Trump-Bush showdown, with Twitter heavyweight Trump hoovering up the most new followers (nearly 7,000 within thirty minutes of the debate ending) and accounting for over a third of all conversations using the #GOPDebate hashtag. On Facebook, the top social media moment was Bush chastising Trump that "you can't insult your way to the presidency," helping the cash-rich but poll-poor candidate earn a spot tied with his former protégé Rubio for third-most discussed person on stage.
Over on the prediction markets, the odds of who'll win the Republican nomination are largely unchanged with Rubio down slightly on both PredictWise and Pivit as of 6 a.m. Eastern time to 39 percent and 32 percent, respectively. This still puts him 13 points ahead of Cruz, according to PredictWise's estimate, but just a single point ahead on Pivit.
Focus on Terrorism
In light of the recent deadly attacks in France and California and their connection to the Islamic State, last night's debate moderators steered the discussion towards foreign policy at nearly every turn. Over the course of the debate, candidates mentioned the Islamic State (or ISIS) 87 times and made 71 references to terrorism, including 17 to Islamic terrorism in particular.
While every single candidate made a point of highlighting the San Bernardino mass shooting at least once, only two presidential hopefuls channeled the atrocities committed in Paris, the same number as those who called out al-Qaeda, responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks in New York City and Washington D.C. over a decade ago.
Friend or Foe?
On the pressing issue of how to defeat the Islamic State and resolve the ongoing military and humanitarian crisis in Syria, the candidates came down on various sides of the issue. Paul was true to his isolationist-leaning reputation and declared that deposing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would lead to "chaos," while Trump argued that "we have to do one thing at a time... we can't be fighting ISIS and fighting Assad." Compare that to Rubio, who blamed Assad for ISIS in the first place, and Kasich, who plainly said that Assad "has to go."
The Republican presidential contenders even disagreed over whether it had been a good idea to oust Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi. One thing they mostly agreed on: Russian President Vladimir Putin is not to be trusted.
— Bloomberg contributor Adam Tiouririne of Logos Consulting Group advises senior business leaders on high-stakes communication and researches language, leadership and the media.