Carly Does It Again
SIMI VALLEY, Calif.—A debate that was advertised breathlessly as a heavyweight match between Donald Trump and Jeb Bush unfolded instead Wednesday as a proving ground for an underdog, Carly Fiorina, who nearly did not make the stage at all.
A decision by CNN one week ago to change its polling metrics ensured that Fiorina would have a spot in the prime-time round. At the first Republican presidential debate of the 2015-2016 election season held Aug. 6 in Cleveland, she had emerged as the standout in the undercard debate. Performing in the main event here Wednesday night, she seized the opportunity to prove her mettle for a wider audience—confronting Trump, defending her record as CEO of Hewlett-Packard, and highlighting her status as one of the non-politicians in the GOP field.
As in Cleveland, high-polling Ben Carson was low key, which appears to be integral to his appeal. Chris Christie was more forceful than before, carving out as his signature point the assertion that the election isn’t about the people on the stage—but those in the audience. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who had trouble gaining traction the first time, was more assertive and poised than before, while others—notably Ohio Gov. John Kasich, and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee—struggled to get air time.
Prior to the debate, moderators expressed the desire for more direct interaction between the candidates themselves, but with 11 of them on stage, that proved difficult to manage. And on-air time was uneven. Only two questions were directed to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, for instance.
Fiorina’s most memorable moments came as she faced off with Trump, the polarizing frontrunner who has dominated the GOP race for president and media coverage of it. At the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library here, he stood once again at center stage.
Asked to respond to Trump’s remark in Rolling Stone magazine about her appearance—The Donald had said caustically, “Who would vote for that face?”— the only woman on stage deftly batted away Trump’s subsequent claim that he was talking about her “persona.”
“I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said,” Fiorina said.
Trump, perhaps proving Fiorina’s underlying point, responded that she “has a beautiful face, and I think she's a beautiful woman."
And when Trump sought to cast doubt on Fiorina’s record at Hewlett-Packard, saying her actions “led to the destruction of the company,” she defended her decisions as unpopular but necessary to keep the company afloat. “I do think that a track record of leadership is vital, because in the end this election is about leadership,” Fiorina said. “And let's talk about what leadership is: It's not about braggadocio; it is about challenging the status quo, solving problems, producing results.”
That Fiorina was able to grab the spotlight from Trump came as something of a surprise after his showing in the first Republican debate, where he dominated the discussion. Following this session, Trump said he “wanted to be a little bit more low key” in his second outing — and, indeed, he seemed nearly to disappear in the second half of the debate as other candidates delved into more detailed discussion of policy.
Nor did Trump retread all of his recent feuds with his fellow candidates, notably Ben Carson. Last week, Trump had publicly questioned Carson's faith after Carson suggested Trump is not religious. Trump's advisers warned him to back off of his attacks, however, and he did so Wednesday.
But even toning down his signature bombast could not keep Trump from stealing the show at intervals, particularly by provoking other candidates. As the debate commenced, Trump responded to a question about his temperament with a non sequitur about a challenger: “First of all, Rand Paul shouldn’t even be on this stage. He’s 11 in the polls.”
Paul responded by describing Trump as “sophomoric” and criticizing his “visceral response to attack people’s appearance.”
“I never attacked him on his looks,” Trump shot back, “but believe me, there's plenty of subject matter right there."
But if Trump finished the first debate without taking much fire from his opponents, for whom he was then still something of a curiosity, this time he was at the center of the debate’s memorable confrontations.
As advertised, many of those exchanges were indeed with Bush, who has in recent weeks displayed profound frustration with Trump’s rhetoric and his standing in the race. On the campaign trail and in advertisements, the former Florida governor has begun to question Trump’s conservative credentials by highlighting his past support for Democrats. Trump has meanwhile dismissed Bush as “low energy.”
“More energy tonight,” Trump observed at one juncture Wednesday, pointing to Bush. “I like it.”
But Trump’s attacks, and the unique extent to which he seems to irk Bush, also afforded Bush opportunities to defend his stances and himself with more conviction and, yes, energy, than he has often shown.
When asked to respond to a past remark by Trump that Bush’s wife, Columba, colored his views on immigration reform, Bush said the comment had been “completely inappropriate,” but then spoke more broadly about the repercussions of Trump’s immigration stance.
“We’re at a crossroads right now,” Bush said. “Are we going to take the Ronald Reagan approach, or the Donald Trump approach?”
During a discussion of President George W. Bush’s national security legacy, Bush let fly a line that, to his aides and allies, showed he can take on dynasty questions with confidence.
“If there’s one thing I know as relates to my brother, he kept us safe,” Bush said. “He sent a clear signal that he would fight Islamic terrorism and keep us safe.”
At the heart of the debate, and central to the Republican race for president as it stands, was the question of whether a candidate who has never held elected office is qualified to be president. Although Trump is the obvious figurehead of the “outsider” contingent, Fiorina and Carson have also climbed in the polls. Together, the trio eat up more than half of the Republican vote in some polls.
The tension was most evident as the candidates debated foreign policy and national security, with governors and senators arguing that, without experience, good judgment alone is not enough to tackle such complex problems. When Trump insisted that the war in Iraq could have been avoided with “judgment,” Bush countered that Trump’s “lack of judgment and understanding about how the world works is really dangerous.”
And when Carson suggested the United States should explore avenues other than military force to confront terrorists around the globe, Marco Rubio shot back: “Radical Islam cannot be solved by intellect.”
That exchange was one episode in a strong showing for Rubio, who has so far failed to break from the middle of the GOP pack, but who put on display his command of foreign policy that has made him the dark-horse pick for many Republicans.
A few candidates hoped the second debate could provide the spark to reignite their flagging campaigns. Scott Walker, who has tanked in the polls since the first debate, when he led the race in Iowa, came out swinging Wednesday against Trump and seemed determined to showcase more verve. He even wore his Harley-Davidson motorcycle boots on stage.
“Ronald Reagan at this point shook things up in his campaign,” Walker told reporters after the debate, “and he got refocused on being a successful governor and laying out a positive plan for moving the country forward.”
But it remains unclear what combination of factors, if any, will derail the runaway Trump train. Many Republican candidates and their campaigns have maintained hope that the race, and particularly Trump’s dominance, will come into natural equilibrium in due time. After the debate, Paul expressed confidence that the shift is still to come.
“There's going to be a reshuffling,” he told reporters. “People are starting to think more seriously about who could be commander in chief.”
In an interview afterward with CNN, however, Trump seemed comfortable with his standing, even as he said he was left impressed with his challengers. But that wasn’t his biggest takeaway from the marathon discussion with few commercial intervals.
“I’ve learned that I have no trouble standing for three hours,” Trump said.
RealClearPolitics co-founder and Executive Editor Tom Bevan contributed to this report.