The GOP Debate Winner Proved That She — Yes, She — Is A Force To Be Reckoned With

Alright, everyone! We're officially at the halfway mark. You just watched the sixth of 12 Republican primary debates. You're forgiven if it seems like an awful lot of brouhaha, considering just how rarely the candidates say new, substance-filled, or dynamic things. As we've seen in all of them so far, Thursday included, some candidates just can't separate themselves from their favorite, unsuccessful punchlines and arguments. But that's the thing about political debates ― you never quite know what'll win people over. So, keeping that in mind, who actually won the sixth Republican debate?

Unfortunately, it's notoriously hard to tell in the immediate aftermath of a debate who carried the night, because it's not just a matter of laying out the most factual statements or rational policies. If that was what rewarded candidates during one of these things, they'd probably look a lot different. In reality, countless things weigh in that have nothing to do with policy: your stage presence, your body language, your composure and command in the event of any direct confrontations.

And, of course, the retroactive assessment of who won hinges almost entirely on one question: where you were in the polls going in, and did you get a bump going out? After all, no matter how good a night a guy like John Kasich might have, the steep uphill climb he faces (he's polling at just 2 percent nationally, and no better in Iowa) raises the bar for a meaningful victory nearly completely out-of-sight.

But there's another way to look at this thing: Who came out looking the absolute best? Who got all the shine and none of the shade? And who came out best positioned for a major job in the next Republican presidential administration? When you cut through all the noise and all the drama on Thursday night, the basic facts between the candidates on-stage seemed largely, fundamentally unchanged. But one woman sitting in the crowd saw her profile soar ― Nikki Haley was the single biggest winner of the Fox Business Network debate.

Just as anticipated, the debate featured more direct confrontation between Trump and Cruz than we've seen to this point, keyed by Trump going on the attack regarding Cruz's controversial recent remarks about "New York values" as compared to the values of Iowa and New Hampshire. Cruz also turned in a capable performance in his own right, as did establishment hope Marco Rubio.

But Haley drew what might have been the most universally positive reception, by virtue of her well-received State of the Union response, and the praise she received in the aftermath of the racially motivated mass shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, last year. Haley had the ever-controversial Confederate flag pulled down from the statehouse grounds after the lethal assault, which left nine black parishioners dead ― Jeb Bush actually took a moment of out the debate to salute her, and Donald Trump even backed off his recent attacks. When you've got even Trump pulling punches, you know your political brand is in solid, solid shape.

Simply put, you could give this thing to Trump, sure ― he was the front-runner going in, and will probably still be in a few days, when the first post-debate polls come out. But he also suffered a little under Cruz's withering attacks, especially on the subject of Cruz's birth, citizenship, and constitutional eligibility to be president. He'll probably hold his lead, but it was hardly a flawless or spotless engagement.

For Haley, however, the night was an exceptional success, especially with the venue being in her home state. Even before her starring turn after Tuesday's State of the Union, she was widely regarded as a potential vice presidential pick, and the sight of her sitting in the crowd, soaking in the adoration, while the top-ticket candidates bitterly and angrily argued, often drowned out by the cascading, dissonant boos? That's exactly the image that helps grease the wheels towards a Haley VP selection. And rest assured, whichever of the seven blustery men (except Ben Carson, who's quite the opposite of bluster) who were in Thursday night's debate actually wins this thing, they could really use some of her broader appeal.