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Internet christens Trump the GOP debate winner (again)

"The Donald" dominates conversation on Twitter during the sixth Republican presidential debate, crushing rival Ted Cruz and other candidates.

Donald Trump isn't letting up. He and his supporters continue to steamroll the GOP presidential competition on the debate stage and on social media.

The Republican front-runner in the race to lead the nation was the most talked about candidate on Twitter during the sixth GOP debate, held Thursday in North Charleston, South Carolina. Trump accounted for 38 percent of all mentions, according to the social network. He's so far ahead of his competition that his share of the conversation represented more than Sen. Ted Cruz (22 percent) and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (11 percent) combined.

Twitter users sent out more than 800,000 debate-related tweets during the event, according to data from Spredfast, a social media marketing company. Trump was mentioned in roughly half of the tweets measured by Spredfast and other social-media analysis platforms including Engagement Labs and Brandwatch.

Donald Trump is not only crushing it on the debate stage but also on social media.

Porter Gifford/Corbis

"Trump's 'say anything' mentality garners huge response on social," said Chris Kerns, Spredfast's vice president of research and analytics. "While the response is often a loud mix between outrage and support, his willingness to push the boundaries far beyond where most politicians would traditionally go, incites incredible levels of social buzz."

With the all-important Iowa Caucus less than two weeks away, Thursday's debate continues to highlight the critical role social media plays in this year's presidential race. Both GOP and Democratic candidates parlay social media to spread their messages to voters who get their political fix through Twitter and Facebook. Voters themselves are turning to those networks to cheer -- or jeer -- the candidates. The conventional wisdom is that winning on social media will translate to the ballot box.

Trump "continues to maintain dominance over the other candidates," said Engagement Labs CEO Bryan Segal, adding that Trump gained more than 10,000 Twitter followers during the debate and had the most re-tweets.

Yet, the most discussed moment on Twitter during the 2-hour debate didn't involve Trump or Cruz, despite their tussling over the 9/11 terrorist attacks and "New York values." Instead, it went to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who called out President Barack Obama, saying it's time to "kick your rear end out of the White House."

Without debate, Trump is garnering more than his share of attention and relishing it. Fox Business Channel anchor Maria Bartiromo, a moderator for Thursday's debate, said the most talked-about moment of Trump's presidential campaign so far was when he proposed suspending immigration of Muslims. Despite more than 10 million people talking about it on Facebook, Trump said he hadn't heard anything that would make him rethink his position. "We have to stop with political correctness," he said to cheers.

That hasn't impressed his dissenters. Trump had the most negative mentions online with more than 50 percent, said Kellan Terry, a Brandwatch data analyst. Christie and fellow candidate Ben Carson weren't too far behind. Carson's ramblings about national security and enemies detonating bombs in our "exo-atmosphere" made him the target of many jokes, Terry said. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Cruz and Bush had the most positive sentiments online, according to Brandwatch.

The second-most mentioned debate moment came when Cruz insulted Trump about his "New York values." The Texas senator jabbed with "everyone understands that the values in New York City are socially liberal, are pro-abortion, are pro-gay marriage, focused around money and the media."

Trump countered, emotionally recalling how New Yorkers responded during the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks as "the smell of death," lingered for months. "We rebuilt downtown Manhattan, and everybody in the world watched and loved New York and loved New Yorkers," the real estate mogul said.

Meanwhile, one GOP candidate not participating in Thursday's main event still had a strong social media presence. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who boycotted the debate after being relegated to the undercard, held a question and answer session titled #RandRally at Twitter headquarters in New York. The strategy seemed fruitful as Rand attracted more than 3,000 new followers, second only to Trump, Engagement Labs' Segal said.

"Candidates are starting to use the platforms in more creative ways, which ultimately helps those such as Paul compete," he said.