DEBATABLE

01.29.16 5:00 PM ET

Rubio Won. Can He Overtake Cruz Now?

He lied and he dodged, but online polls, for whatever they’re worth, gave it to the Florida senator. But will this debate finally move the needle for him?

So it looks like Marco Rubio won last night. That’s what online polls are telling me. Well, him and Rand Paul, but the Pauls—Rand and his pops—have always had battalions of nerds who go online and click their names over and over again (although he did do fine, but at this point what does it matter?).

Frank Luntz was pushing Rubio hard on Fox News last night right after the debate ended. Out of his 27-person focus group, fully 23 said Rubio won. They called him “aspirational,” “honest,” “powerful,” “prepared,” “electable,” “game-changer” and “positive.” Only three were supporting Rubio coming in; after the thing, nine were.

To Luntz and his panel, Rubio’s moment of glory came on immigration, when the Florida senator said that thing about how “we are not going to round up and deport 12 million people, but we’re not going to go around handing out citizenship cards either.”

Now, this is actually pretty pukeworthy, because anyone who knows Rubio’s history on this knows he was lying his head off. The immigration segment started with Fox News playing clips of Rubio on numerous occasions supporting a path to citizenship, which of course he did. Then—well, it was all a little confusing, but Rubio introduced this concept of “blanket amnesty,” like this:

“Haven’t you already proven you cannot be trusted on this issue?” Kelly asked.

“No, because if you look at the quote, it’s very specific, it says ‘blanket amnesty.’ I do not support blanket legalization—” Rubio began.

Kelly interrupted: “You said more than that, sir.”

“No, I said I do not support blanket legalization,” he said.

“You said earned path to citizenship is basically code for amnesty. You supported an earned path to citizenship,” Kelly responded.

“It absolutely has been,” Rubio attempted to clarify. “At the time and context of that was in 2009 and 2010, where the last effort for legalization was an effort done in the Senate, an effort led by several people that provided almost an instant path, with very little obstacles moving forward.”

So all Rubio was denying was that he had supported “blanket amnesty,” which I guess is different from mere “amnesty.” This is how Rubio always is: So cute with the phrasings. And look at that last sentence. What does that even mean? He was one of the chief Republican backers of a bill that included not only legalization, but a path to citizenship back in 2012-13, when he calculated that that position would help him get to the White House. He was just blatantly and very sleazily lying, but you have to know something to know that, and evidently Luntz’s people knew nothing.

What else happened? This is about the fourth time in a row that Ted Cruz, Mr. Princeton Debater Who You’d Better Look Out For, just wasn’t that good. He’s just sort of off-point a lot of the time, rarely quite getting to the heart of a matter. Everybody says Jeb Bush was better than usual, but I had trouble seeing it. Chris Christie was his usual self, which is to say he had some good applause lines and a few flat ones. By the way, did you know that 9/11 really had an impact on him?!

To me, the clear winner was moderator Bret Baier, who, to my astonishment, actually asked an interesting, important, unexpected, non-gotcha question. I don’t have the exact wording, but in essence: What if Putin decided to cross into Estonia? Under Article 5 of NATO, we’d be obliged to go in there and confront Russian troops. Would you?

Now that’s a real question. It could happen. And it’s a tremendous dilemma, because the truth, which no Republican or Democrat would ever admit, is no, we’re not going to start a war with Russia over Estonia. But if we don’t honor the NATO treaty, then NATO is dead, which it arguably ought to be anyway. And which raises the question of why we expanded it into the Baltic states in the first place (a good question for Hillary, since her husband started us down that road). It’s very important stuff, and I tip my hat to Baier.

Unfortunately, he asked it of Ben Carson. After he woke up, the un-surgin’ surgeon spouted some nonsense and went back to sleep.

Meanwhile, that man across town still dominated things somehow. The Time magazine online poll on who won the debate had Paul at 18 percent, Rubio at 12, and Cruz at 7 early Friday; but it also had “Donald Trump, even though he skipped it,” at 53 percent.

So that, evidently, is that. Trump’s going to win Iowa. There might now be an actual fight for second. I should stipulate that Rubio has been declared the winner in previous debates, and it hasn’t moved the polling needle. But lately, a few polls show him kinda-sorta within striking distance of Cruz, seven, eight percentage points behind. And how about the Friday Des Moines Register front page? “Rough Night for Cruz,” across all six columns on A1! Remember, the paper endorsed Rubio last week, so the cheerleading here is practically Pravda-like.

If Rubio manages to eclipse Cruz, that’s going to change the race in a big way. It puts the establishment back in the game and gives them one choice to rally around. It’s a totally different dynamic, and one Democrats don’t want to see.