Five weeks since their first clash at the Fox News debate, the Republican presidential candidates gathered late into the night Wednesday for a second round of political natural selection at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California.
Even with the recent departure of former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, the crowded field seemed no less bulky. The 11-person phalanx of candidates who participated in the main debate, stretched out as long as the Air Force One replica behind the stage.
Here are the winners and losers.
Barely sliding into the main-stage competition, the ascendant Fiorina was the clear-cut victor of the evening, just as she was in her first predebate debate. The former Hewlett Packard CEO was treated to the warmest and most consistent applause on Wednesday night. Moreover, she struck a perfect balance of sophistication and toughness when it came to handling questions about (and attacks from) Donald Trump.
When CNN debate moderator Jake Tapper asked Fiorina about Trump's insulting accusations about her appearance—"Look at that face…would anyone vote for that?"—which appeared in a recent Rolling Stone article, Fiorina played it cool but direct: "I think women all over this country heard what Mr. Trump said." The crowd roared. And Fiorina received similar applause from the audience—and Twitter tidings—for smart remarks on the reason Republicans should elect a nonpolitician. "A fish swims in water," she said. "It doesn't know it's water." Unlike Trump, Fiorina demonstrated a strong mastery of the foreign policy encyclopedia. She also continued to prove most capable of keeping her eye on the other side, issuing harsh critiques about Hillary Clinton, whom she chastised as a former secretary of state with nothing but air miles to show for it.
With supporters and donors openly questioning whether Bush has the gumption to win the nomination, the former Florida governor showed he has awoken from his sleepwalk. From the beginning of the debate, Bush made concerted but tactical efforts to confront Trump, while not getting sucked into an intractable name-calling match (although it was touch-and-go, at the early going).
Asked by Tapper if he's a puppet for his donors, as Trump has insisted, Bush fired back by noting, correctly, that he had rebuffed Trump's efforts to legalize casino gambling in Florida. Even Trump, who has repeatedly castigated Bush as a "low-energy" politician, was compelled to admit at one point of a heated exchange: "You've got more energy in this debate."
Perhaps the most heartening moment for Bush came when Trump attempted to goad him into addressing his brother's foreign policy record, a needle Jeb has struggled to thread in the past. This time, he kept things terse about his brother: "He kept us safe," Jeb said, and to applause. That argument may come back to bite him in the general election, but for now, Bush finally has some forward momentum.
Not unlike his first debate performance, Rubio showed himself to be among the more articulate, informed-sounding candidates on foreign policy. Having taken his lumps from conservatives over his failed attempt to legislate bipartisan immigration reform, Rubio seems to be finding his legs again on the issue. Responding to Trump's criticism of Bush speaking in Spanish on the trail, Rubio stole the moment by talking about his own Cuban-born grandfather, someone who "couldn't speak English very well," but who nevertheless discovered the virtues of American conservatism. In a primary that has been treated to its fair share of ugly nativism, Rubio articulated a subtle but resonant rationale for why conservative politicians needs to connect to Spanish-speaking Americans: "I want them to hear from me," he said, "not from a translator in Univision."
We've learned, time and again, that the laws of politics don't always, or often, apply to Donald J. Trump. That said, one is hard-pressed to find anything the current Republican front-runner gained from Wednesday's debate, other than three superfluous hours of cable airtime. Unlike in the Fox News affair, CNN's debate moderators were much more discrete in hoisting Trump on their petards; there was no obvious Megyn Kelly moment from which he could launch a crusade.
And yet, at almost every turn, Trump's past comments and contradictions were served, buffet-style, for the rest of the dais to feast upon. And, at long last, they decided to chomp back as a group, targeting Trump for his intemperate comments; his past corporate bankruptcies (which really seemed to get under his skin); and his far-fetched plans for securing the U.S.-Mexican border. Trump was repeatedly caught flat-footed on foreign policy questions, which this debate emphasized much more than the first.
The Wisconsin governor's debate performance took the trajectory of his presidential campaign in general: starting out strong, but then fizzling over the duration. Walker, who once led the Republican field in Iowa (but has since slid into the middle of the pack), tried to go after Trump early, and with some success: "Mr. Trump, we don't need an apprentice in the White House," the governor jabbed. "We have one now." But by the second hour-long block of the debate, Walker was so scarcely present he might as well have been in Iowa. In the end, the performance will only add to the gathering narrative that Walker just doesn't have the muscle to tussle at the national level.
Beginning with Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal's jeremiad in the warm-up debate, the most popular target throughout the night was the Republican-controlled U.S. Congress. "The only group President Obama can out-negotiate is Senate Republicans," Jindal, a former congressman, cracked. It was just one of several shots he took at his own party's Washington leadership. And the pile-on continued into primetime: "Obama's committed to his liberal principles and Republicans surrender," said Sen. Ted Cruz, who has clashed repeatedly with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.