The winners and losers of the second GOP presidential debate
Can you have too much of a good thing? CNN set out to answer this eternal question on Wednesday night by stretching the second Republican debate featuring Donald Trump to a whopping three hours and encouraging the candidates to fight with each other. The candidates got deeper into the issues than they did during last month's Fox News debate, and the bickering was nearly constant (moderator Jake Tapper repeatedly asked candidates to respond to a rival's criticism). But by the end of the debate, everyone on stage looked like they were melting and the audience felt like they'd been standing under the hot lights in the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library for three hours, too. Here's where each candidate stood (or passed out perhaps) at the end of the debate, according to the pundits.
Most memorable moments: Trump was at least indirectly involved in most of the debate's memorable moments, and he was the focus of many of the moderators' questions. (It's almost like CNN knew they had ratings gold and tried to capitalize on it.) His notable scuffles are covered below, but his ridiculously expressive face deserves special mention. Regardless of your feelings on Trump as a politician and human being, his ability to do whatever this is makes him a national treasure:
How he did:
At the center of attention all night. Hurled hatchets in all directions, sometimes unprovoked. Made a pronounced effort not to appear rattled, even though the audience seemed mostly against him. Handled policy questions without a gaffe. Trump skeptics will think he went too far in a fight with Bush on Florida casino plans, an awkward conciliatory remark he made about Fiorina's appearance, and some of his other barbs and scowls. But by Trump standards, all par for the course. – Mark Halperin, Bloomberg Politics
Are people going to remember the shallow, sassy Donald Trump from the first half-hour? ("I wrote 'The Art of the Deal.' I say not in a braggadocio's way I've made billions and billions of dollars.") Or the middle-section Trump who clearly didn't have a clue about how to critique President Obama's Syrian policy? ("Somehow he just doesn't have courage. There's something missing from our president.") And then there was the completely, unbelievably irresponsible Trump of the finale who claimed he knew people whose daughter got autism from a vaccine shot. (This happened, he said, to "people that work for me just the other day.") Remember when the vaccination issue destroyed Michele Bachmann's political career? One can only hope. – Gail Collins, New York Times
Trump came out swinging – but ended up missing. Not only wasn't he substantive -- again -- but he made some pretty bizarre statements. He thinks a flat tax is more complicated than a regressive tax. He said that vaccines cause autism. He wants Syria and ISIS to fight each other. He will get along with Putin. This stuff doesn't hold up to scrutiny. The question is whether any is ever applied to Trump. – SE Cupp, CNN
He was not dominant. Fiorina got to him, and while Trump won some of his exchanges with Bush, he lost some of them, too. He avoided severe damage on foreign policy, which was a win for him. There will be no new Trump surge, but I am not persuaded that he lost as much ground as some of my pundit colleagues seem to think. What was hinted at tonight is that as the Trump phenomenon is normalized, it will become less interesting. But I suspect he'll stay in the lead for a while longer. – E.J. Dionne Jr., Washington Post
See photos from Wednesday night's debate:
Most memorable moments: Bush's mission was to disprove Trump's claim that he's "low-energy" and he earned a high five from the frontrunner when he revealed what he'd pick for his Secret Service nickname: "Everready. It's very high energy, Donald."
However, Bush quickly caved when Trump refused to apologize for dragging his wife Columba into their fight over immigration. "She's right here. Why don't you apologize to her right now?" Bush said. Trump answered, "I won't do that because I said nothing wrong." Bush nodded and moved on.
The family drama continued when Rand Paul alluded to Bush's admission that he smoked pot in high school. "So 40 years ago, I smoked marijuana," he said. "I'm sure other people might have done it and may not want to say it in front of 25 million people. My mom's not happy that I just did."
Surprisingly, Bush had the most success with his defense of George W. Bush. Trump told Bush, "your brother and your brother's administration gave us Barack Obama, because it was such a disaster those last three months that Abraham Lincoln couldn't have been elected." Bush replied, "You know what? As it relates to my brother, there is one thing I know for sure, he kept us safe." The line got big applause, while Twitter seemed to shout en masse "what about 9/11 and the Iraq war?!"
How he did:
Did Bush find some spine and spark? Yes, but he seemed to fumble for it. He picked a fight with Trump about casinos in Florida. He spoke succinctly about his brother's administration, no longer pantomiming a deer in headlights. He made a marijuana joke and then another joke, about his energy level, saying that he'd want his Secret Service nickname to be "Eveready." Like the battery. But there remains something wan about him: In a season of such garish colors, he always looks a little pale. – Frank Bruni, New York Times
Bush was up and down, but it's hard to believe that this was the pugnacious fighter his campaign promised to deliver ahead of the debate. Perhaps his most passionate moment came in defense of his brother, former President George W. Bush. But even that was bumpy: He claimed that his brother "kept America safe" from terror, overlooking 9/11, the one important moment at which Bush did not prevent an attack. Jeb Bush also still doesn't seem to have a good answer to questions about how he differs from his brother and father, nine months into his candidacy. That's a problem, given the low esteem in which those two administrations are held by both conservative activists and the general population. Raising his voice for what was clearly intended to be a strong finish, Bush flubbed his lines. This just isn't a format that works well for him. – David Graham, The Atlantic
Jeb Bush had a complicated debate, sometimes looking beleaguered, sometimes on offense. He did well defending immigration and (for a Republican audience) defending his brother. He opened up a fascinating line of continuing inquiry by saying that Trump lobbied him to legalize gambling in Florida; Bush said he wouldn't do it. Trump denied Bush's account, but there's evidence on Bush's side in this story. Bush got plenty of time to talk and scored well enough that he may pick up at least a few points in the polls. But he will lose in comparisons with Fiorina, who looked tougher in going straight at Trump. – E.J. Dionne Jr., WashingtonPost
Most memorable moments: With his poll numbers dropping, Walker needed to go big on Wednesday night. He was one of the first candidates to attack Trump, saying "We don't need an apprentice in the White House. We have one right now," but then he wasn't asked a question for 90 minutes. By NPR's calculation, Walker got the least air time, speaking for eight and a half minutes, while Trump topped the list at nearly 19 minutes. Politico reports Walker was still in the debate spin room doing damage control long after most other candidates had departed.
How he did:
If anyone needed a moment (or three) in this debate, it was the Wisconsin governor. He didn't get one. Despite a relatively prime stage position -- he was standing next to Jeb Bush in the center-right of the stage -- Walker was sort of a nonentity. He needed to make headlines; he didn't. — Chris Cillizza, Washington Post
The loser tonight was Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. He has been fading in the polls lately, and this was his chance to show potential supporters and donors that he is still a major player. Instead, between Trump's bravado and the occasional flourishes of the other candidates -- Rubio on foreign policy, Fiorina on her business record -- Walker seemed to get lost in the shuffle. Unlike nearly every other candidate, Walker did not have one strong "moment." – Raul Rayes, CNN
Most memorable moments: While Carson tussled with Trump over religion last week, during the second debate he was still campaigning to be Miss Congeniality of the GOP primary race. In a moment that confirmed science has no place in a Republican debate, Trump cited anecdotal evidence to back up his claim that the recommended schedule for administering vaccines – but not necessarily the vaccines themselves – has contributed to the autism "epidemic." When given the opportunity to correct Trump's unscientific claim, the pediatric neurosurgeon backed him up, saying "we have extremely well-documented proof that there's no autism associated with vaccinations — however, it is true that we are probably giving way too many in far too short a time." (Rand Paul also said he's pro-vaccine, but "I ought to have the right so spread my vaccines out, at the very least.")
Later Carson said of the invasion of Iraq, "I voted to not go to war, okay?," though he held no office at the time. Trump gave him a high five, which somehow turned into an awkward handshake.
How he did:
Ben Carson did not entirely disappear, but he came close at times. You would think this hurt him, but a similar performance in the first debate actually kicked off his ascent in the polls. He was quiet and mostly reasonable, which is what the voters who like him seem to be looking for. – E.J. Dionne Jr., Washington Post
The big question now is not whether Carly Fiorina's polling goes up, but from whom does she take votes? My guess is, among others, Ben Carson, who does great as a lecturer, but not as a debater. He was very soft spoken and not very engaged. – Erick Erickson, Fox News
Most memorable moments: There were long stretches where Cruz wasn't called on, and his only big clash was with Jeb Bush, after he criticized George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush for appointing former Justice David Souter and Chief Justice John Roberts to the Supreme Court. When Jeb noted that Cruz was once a big Roberts supporter, he said, "It is true that after George W. Bush nominated John Roberts I supported his confirmation. That was a mistake and I regret that." Cruz also continued his effort to woo Trump supporters, saying, "I'm very glad that Donald Trump's being in this race has forced the mainstream media finally to talk about illegal immigration."
How he did:
Cruz stayed in his lane, had a few moments of passion (particularly on Planned Parenthood), but I think it dawned on him tonight that being Trump's wing man might not play out the way he thought. – Rick Wilson, Politico
Ted Cruz had perhaps the strongest sustained spotlight when he took center stage for several moments discussing President Obama's unpopular Iran deal. In the exchange, Cruz also bested campaign rival John Kasich, who advocated for a more conciliatory approach. However, Cruz's penchant at times for coming across as overrehearsed showed up in his opening statement, and that's something he still has to work on. – Steve Deace, USA Today
Most memorable moments: Rubio wasn't an aggressive or flashy presence on stage, but he gave competent answers when he was called on. He said in his opening statement, "I'm also aware that California has a drought. And that's why I made sure I brought my own water," but his attempt to recapture the viral magic of the Poland Spring incident flopped.
Toward the end of the debate, Rubio generated a viral moment unintentionally when moderator Jake Tapper gave him an impossible choice: disagree with Ronald Reagan's secretary of state, or admit that doing nothing about climate change isn't smart. He chose the former. "We're not going to make America a harder place to create jobs in order to pursue policies that will do absolutely nothing, nothing to change our climate," Rubio said. "America is a lot of things, the greatest country in the world, absolutely. But America is not a planet."
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