No Republican presidential candidate ended the Donald Trump Show in Wednesday night’s primary debate. But, boy, did they try.
Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul dismissed Trump’s style as “sophomoric.” Former Hewlett-Packard chief executive Carly Fiorina dismissed Trump as a “wonderful entertainer.” Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker referred to Trump, the former reality TV-show host, as “the apprentice.”
Yet none of the real-estate tycoon’s rivals landed a punch during the free-wheeling, three-hour debate on CNN to knock Trump off his frontrunner perch. They had to content themselves with — maybe — bruising him.
“I say not in a braggadocious way, I’ve made billions and billions of dollars dealing with people all over the world, and I want to put whatever that talent is to work for this country,” Trump, holding court at center stage, said by way of introduction.
He tangled repeatedly with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who led the GOP field before Trump took the race by storm, and needed to reassure affluent donors that he can take Trump on.
Bush seemed keenly aware of the pressure. He missed his first chance to attack when asked if Trump should be responsible for the nation’s nuclear codes. But the next time, Bush visibly girded himself and turned to Trump, standing a mere 20 inches to his right. The issue: Donors’ influence on politicians, including when Bush was governor.
“The one guy that had some special interests that I know of that tried to get me to change my views on something — that was generous and gave me money — was Donald Trump,” Bush said. “He wanted casino gambling in Florida.”
“I didn’t,” Trump interrupted.
Bush: “Yes, you did.” (He did.)
Back and forth the sparring went. It ended with Trump, who’s gotten under Bush’s skin by calling him low-energy: “More energy tonight! I like that.” The rest of the night, Bush addressed his rival as “Donald.”
Near the end, when asked to pick his Secret Service code name, Bush said, “Eveready — it’s very high-energy, Donald!” Trump gave him a high-five.
At one point, Bush got to defend his pro-life record in Florida — the kind of thing his campaign advisers want him to do, to share “the Florida story” — but Trump got in the last word, repeatedly asking Bush about his tongue-slip earlier in the campaign saying the federal government shouldn’t fund women’s health programs: “Why did you say it?” Trump pushed. Bush didn’t answer.
Bush received the most applause, surprisingly, for staunchly defending his brother, former President George W. Bush when the topic turned to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The younger Bush has struggled on the campaign trail distancing himself from his brother’s legacy. This time, he embraced him.
After one of the three debate moderators, conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt, noted many of Bush’s advisers worked for his brother’s administration.
“As it relates to my brother, there’s one thing I know for sure: He kept us safe,” Bush shot back, referring to the 9/11 attacks that happened while George W. Bush was president. “You remember the rubble?”
One thing Bush did not do was speak Spanish, even though moderator Jake Tapper gave him an opening to do so when he mentioned Trump’s suggestion on the campaign trail that Bush should speak more English. Bush’s response was stolen by his fellow Miamian on the stage, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.
“I want to tell you a story about someone that didn’t speak English that well: It was my grandfather,” said Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants. “He became a conservative, even though he got his news in Spanish. And so, I do give interviews in Spanish, and here’s why: because I believe that free enterprise and limited government is the best way to help people who are trying to achieve upward mobility.
“And if they get their news in Spanish, I want them to hear that directly from me — not from a translator at Univision.”
The audience erupted at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California.
Rubio had few opportunities to be heard. Yet he seized them, speaking in detail about foreign policy, global warming and geopolitics and defending himself against a rare Trump attack — over Rubio’s high absenteeism in the Senate.
“I have missed some votes,” Rubio conceded, trying to blame an “out-of-touch” chamber leaving senators frustrated and powerless. “I’m leaving the Senate,” he noted.
All but one of the 11 candidates — Trump, Paul, Fiorina, Walker, Bush, Rubio, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie — had shared a stage at the first debate in Cleveland last month. The addition was Fiorina, the only woman in the GOP race, and she made a splash.
Fiorina took on Trump and Christie, and delivered some of the best one-liners of the night.
When given a chance to respond to a Trump’s comment to Rolling Stone about her appearance — “Look at that face!” — Fiorina was ready: “Women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said.”
Amid applause, Trump stepped in to try to make nice: “I think she’s got a beautiful face, and I think she’s a beautiful woman.”
Trump also dominated much of another debate he didn’t even attend.
The four Republicans with the lowest poll numbers — South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, former New York Gov. George Pataki and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum — fielded several questions about Trump and invoked him themselves in an earlier debate also televised by CNN.
Hoping for a breakout moment, the candidates in the junior-varsity debate let loose in engaging exchanges about immigration, the minimum wage and the Supreme Court. A fifth candidate, former Viginia Gov. Jim Gilmore, didn’t make the stage, even after former Texas Gov. Rick Perry bowed out of the race because Gilmore didn’t meet the 1 percent polling cutoff. Gilmore tweeted from his campaign headquarters instead.
No one got more laughs than Graham, who in the first debate in August appeared uncharacteristically sullen. This time, he was funny and gregarious — despite delivering a message about war and terrorism. And no one held back on Trump.
“The best way for us to give this election back would be to nominate a Donald Trump,” Jindal said. “He’ll implode in the general election, or if, God forbid, if he were in the White House, we have no idea what he would do. You can’t just attack him on policy. He doesn’t care about policy. It’s not enough to say he was for socialized medicine or higher taxes ... He’s not serious.”