The second Republican debate on Wednesday night was a marathon, running for three hours at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, Calif. Who crossed the line strong and who stumbled along the way?
Fiorina seized her big moment, having moved up from the “B-team” forum to which she was confined at the first debate in Cleveland last month. If expectations were high for Fiorina, she surpassed them with an engaged, passionate performance. A forceful denunciation of Planned Parenthood might have been her standout moment in terms of connecting with the Republican electorate at an emotional level. But she also scored highly throughout, in moments as diverse as discussing foreign policy on one hand and mixing it up with Donald TrumpDonald TrumpTHE MEMO: Recriminations fly with Trump’s health vote in peril Government watchdogs: Give Ivanka Trump official title Toronto school board bars US trips amid travel ban uncertainty MORE on the other.
Rubio had a strong night, especially on foreign policy, where he showed real depth. He also more than once laid out positions that were somewhat similar to those of his mentor, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, but were delivered with much greater crispness. For example, after Bush meandered through a defense of speaking Spanish on the campaign trail, Rubio argued that it was important for Spanish-speaking voters to hear conservative arguments “directly from me, not from a translator at Univision.” Rubio’s performance at the first debate was also well-received yet made little difference to his polling numbers. Could he get a bump this time?
For all the negative attention Christie has received recently, he has considerable political skills, not least that he is a formidable debater. His best moment came during an exchange between Fiorina and Trump about their respective business careers. The New Jersey governor, forceful as ever, insisted that “for the 55-year-old construction worker out in that audience tonight who doesn't have a job, who can't fund his child's education, I've got to tell you the truth: They could care less about your careers.” No-one knows whether Christie’s performance will change his fortunes with GOP voters who have proven impervious to his charms so far. But he had a good night by any measure.
Carson went into the debate as the closest challenger to Trump in the polls, with the GOP electorate warming up to his low-key, affable style. Carson did not deviate from that path on Wednesday. He didn’t have any single great moment, but it was a proficient performance. And Carson did show that, despite his laid-back style, he can be quick on his feet. After Trump expressed skepticism about vaccines, a smiling Carson shot back, “He’s an OK doctor” — a phrase Trump had used only days before about Carson, an acclaimed former neurosurgeon.
Cruz appealed to the party faithful on Wednesday with a robust defense of the right to bear arms and a vigorous condemnation of the Iran nuclear deal, among other matters. Cruz also showed that he has as strong a command of TV debating technique as anyone in the field — including looking directly into the camera rather than at audience members. It remains unclear if he can expand his support beyond the most conservative reaches of the GOP, but he had a good night.
Trump was nowhere near as dominant a presence as he was at the first debate, in part because he came under much more sustained attack from his rivals. Trump had some unsteady moments, including one instance when he appeared to suggest he would get himself better informed about threats facing the United States between now and potentially assuming the presidency. He also slid away from his recent personal criticisms of Fiorina by insisting that “she has a beautiful face” — hardly a remark that would win over his own detractors. But he was, on balance, a winner for two reasons. Firstly, for all the punches thrown at him, none put him on the canvas. Secondly, he again got under the skin of Jeb Bush, likely deepening the troubles for the favorite candidate of the GOP establishment.
The Ohio governor has been trying to overtake Bush as the establishment choice, and he seemed to be trying to present himself as an electable grown-up. He had his moments but, as one of the lesser-known candidates nationwide, he needs to make a significant impact every time he is in front of a big national audience. He didn’t appear to do so on Wednesday evening.
Huckabee has a very different ideological appeal to Kasich, but there are some stylistic similarities: They are both somewhat folksy politicians who can be very effective communicators. But Huckabee suffered from a similar problem to Kasich: Although he had some strong moments — the Kim Davis controversy is almost tailor-made for him — it seems unlikely that he attained any real breakthrough.
The Wisconsin governor has been falling precipitously in the polls, in part because his performance at the first debate was widely seen as lacking fire and charisma. Walker came out of the gate impressively on Wednesday night with a jab at Trump — “We don’t need an apprentice in the White House” — but he mostly faded after that. His showing wasn’t as bad as it was in Cleveland, but he did nothing that looked likely to turn around his ailing fortunes.
Paul was put on his heels at the start of the night when Trump mocked him for, allegedly, not deserving to be on the stage at all. To be fair to Paul, his performance was not objectively bad. It just did nothing to change the minds of a Republican electorate that seems strongly disinclined to back him.
The consensus going into Wednesday night’s debate was that Bush needed an animated, commanding performance to erase memories of his hesitant showing in Cleveland. Instead, he delivered more of the same. His remarks on Supreme Court Justice John Roberts, in particular, seemed confused and contradictory. A defensiveness also crept into responses over his brother’s record. And while Bush tried to challenge Trump more assertively than in the first debate, the businessman got the better of most of their exchanges. Bush’s performance, taken in isolation, was not the worst on the stage. But it was far below what might be expected from a man who was the clear GOP front-runner not so long ago.