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Rivals Go Easy on Front-Runner Trump in GOP Debate

Are Donald Trump's Republican opponents crazy like foxes or making a big strategic blunder?

Trump has a huge lead in New Hampshire and in national polls and is effectively tied in Iowa. He seems the best-positioned of the candidates to win the GOP primaries that start in fewer than three weeks.

But outside of a couple testy exchanges between Trump and Texas senator Ted Cruz and some other small jabs, the mogul's rivals barely attacked him during Thursday night's debate in South Carolina. His six opponents didn't treat Trump like a front-runner who they desperately needed to take down. In fact, several of them never mentioned his name. Thursday's session, hosted by Fox Business Network, at times was less of a debate than a forum in which the candidates turned every question into an attack on President Obama, Hillary Clinton, or both.

Related: Blistering GOP Debate in S. Carolina Offers 3 Big Takeaways

"I'm liking him tonight," Trump said of Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who criticized Trump in previous debates but did not in this one.

Ex-Florida Gov. Jeb Bush did repeat his criticisms of Trump's proposal for a temporary ban on allowing Muslims into the U.S., dubbing the idea "unhinged."

Donald Trump Responds to Cruz' 'New York Values' Remark 1:30

And Cruz, tied with Trump in polls in Iowa, said the mogul was playing up the issue of Cruz's birth in Canada for political reasons.

But that exchange put Cruz, not Trump, on the defensive. Cruz was forced to explain to an audience of millions that he is in fact eligible to run for president because his mother is an American citizen, even though the Texas senator was born in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.

Cruz also repeated his criticism of Trump's "New York values," a phrase meant to unveil the front-runner's less conservative positions in the past. But Trump was able to pivot from that by talking about the city's admirable resolution in the days and weeks after the 9/11 attacks.

This debate continued a pattern in which many of the Republican candidates are not aggressively attacking Trump, despite his long-held lead in polls. An analysis by the Huffington Post earlier this month showed that of the $99.3 million dollars spent so far in the 2016 cycle by independent groups, many of them super-PAC's allied with specific candidates, less than $2 million was used on campaign ads criticizing Trump.

Trump's rivals have largely opted to attack each other. Bush, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Cruz have been particularly aggressive in criticizing Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who has some appeal among both the conservatives Cruz wants to win and the more moderate voters who could back Bush or Christie.

During this debate, Rubio highlighted Christie's past support for gun control and attacked Cruz's tax plan, but sidestepped opportunities to criticize Trump.

Cruz surged in polls over the last few months in Iowa without attacking Trump. And the candidate who has been the sharpest critic of Trump, Bush, remains way behind in polls.

So Trump's rivals may be right that attacking the mogul is not the key to defeating him. Either way, they are running out of time: there is only one debate (scheduled for Jan. 28) before Iowa votes on Feb. 1.