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    A tale of two GOP debates among four candidates

    One of the main duels of the night featured Donald Trump (left) and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush (right).
    Ruth Fremson/EPA/Pool
    One of the main duels of the night featured Donald Trump (left) and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush (right).

    Nine Republicans took the stage Tuesday night in Las Vegas for one CNN debate. But in reality, the candidates had two different and significant debates that night — and both could portend the future of the contest for the GOP nomination.

    In the first ring, US Senator Ted Cruz and US Senator Marco Rubio of Florida debated national security and immigration. In the other ring, former Florida governor Jeb Bush and New York businessman Donald Trump held an altogether different debate on presidential competence.

    As for the other candidates, Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey and US Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky injected their way into the debate at times. The three others on stage — former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, Ohio Governor John Kasich and Ben Carson — were non-factors in the evening’s conversation, for the most part.

    Cruz vs. Rubio


    Republicans could have held an entire debate focused on Trump’s recent proposal to ban Muslims from entering the country. But Cruz and Rubio topped the tally of candidate airtime on Tuesday evening, according to National Public Radio. Their frequent back and forth over a number of issues symbolized a fight for the soul of the Republican Party between the establishment and the grass-roots.

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    Both GOP candidates are rising in the polls, with Cruz competing for the lead in Iowa, the state that kicks off the nomination process with its caucuses. Rubio has been also rising in the polls, especially in national surveys, and has been able to recruit more major fund-raisers to his side.

    Rubio and Cruz are the same age. Both are first-term senators. Both have Cuban roots. Both are talented debaters. The dynamic over national defense, privacy laws and immigration have been telegraphed from both camps from both campaigns for weeks. They’ve sparred before, and they will continue to do so — but this fight began in earnest on Tuesday night.

    Trump vs. Bush

    When Trump entered the race for president this summer, he thought he would be fighting with Bush for the front-runner spot. It quickly became clear that Trump would be in his own category. In debate after debate, Bush would try to engage with Trump (or with Rubio) and fail.

    But in Tuesday’s debate, Bush landed a number of zingers like, “You are not going to insult your way to the presidency of the United States.” He became a factor on the stage again.


    Trump more than held his own in the wake Bush’s attacks and did no harm to his front-runner status in the process. Still, watch the interaction between Trump and Bush to continue into the next year.

    James Pindell can be reached at james.pindell@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell. Click here to subscribe to his daily e-mail update on the 2016 campaign.