Simi Valley, California – The political jousting began early in the second Republican presidential debate, with front-runner Donald Trump getting into fights with nearly everyone else onstage. But while his usual rivals mostly failed to throw him off his game, a new debate participant seemed to present his toughest challenge yet.
In one of several skirmishes, businesswoman Carly Fiorina – who did not qualify for the first debate – responded to recent remarks by Trump deriding her physical appearance.
“I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said,” Fiorina said.
The audience burst into massive applause in response, easily the loudest of the night. Trump, who seemed caught off guard by the explosive reaction to the field’s only female candidate, said that Fiorina “has a beautiful face” and is a “beautiful woman.”
Fiorina and Trump later clashed over their business records, with Trump saying her record as CEO of Hewlett-Packard, which was marred by layoffs and internal conflict, was a “disaster.” Fiorina shot back that Trump had filed for bankruptcy repeatedly after running up “mountains of debt.”
The debate, hosted by CNN, was held at the Ronald Reagan Library, where the 40th president is buried. The 11 candidates, spread less than two feet apart across the stage, met in front of Reagan’s presidential jet.
Fiorina seemed at home on the main stage, making the most of her biggest moment yet. As the evening wore on, Trump’s energy seemed to wane as she took command and other contenders, especially Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, faded into the background for long stretches. The soft-spoken Dr. Ben Carson, who shot to second place in the polls after his debate performance in August, also struggled to get a word in as other candidates interrupted the proceedings to get in their talking points.
Fiorina was hardly the only candidate to tangle with Trump. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who has stepped up his attacks on Trump on the trail, clashed often with the billionaire. Bush accused Trump of acting as a “special interest” when he was governor by trying to lobby Bush to legalize casino gambling, which he opposed (“I promise: If I wanted it I would have gotten it,” Trump said). At one point, he demanded Trump apologize to his wife, Columba Bush, for suggesting that her Mexican heritage made Bush unwilling to crack down on illegal immigration.
“I hear your wife is a lovely woman,” Trump said, but he didn’t comply with the request.
Trump later tied Bush to his brother, President George W. Bush, who he said should never have invaded Iraq and managed the economy so badly that “Abraham Lincoln” couldn’t defeat Barack Obama in 2008. Bush said his brother “kept us safe,” prompting a round of applause from the audience. Walker also defended the former president from Trump’s attack, arguing Obama bore responsibility instead for conflict in the Middle East.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a longtime Iraq War critic, took Trump’s side in that debate. But he pointed to Trump’s tendency to mock people’s appearance as evidence of a “junior high school” temperament unsuited to foreign policy and Trump proved more than happy to play the schoolyard bully.
“I never attacked him on his look – and believe me there’s plenty of subject matter there,” Trump said.
“We don’t need an “’Apprentice’ in the White House, we have one right now,” Walker declared early in the debate, apparently unfamiliar with Trump’s reality TV show – the apprentices were the contestants.
The candidates soon dove into more substantive issues, however, getting into a spirited debate over whether to immediately renounce the White House’s nuclear agreement with Iran if they take office. Sen. Ted Cruz promised to “rip to shreds” the agreement, a position echoed by Walker. Ohio Gov. John Kasich argued that such a move would alienate the allies who negotiated it with the United States and that he would instead enforce the agreement. Bush said, “it’s not a strategy to tear up an agreement,” while Paul called the “rip to shreds” idea “absurd.”
Rubio, a hawk in the Senate, seemed to relish the foreign policy discussion in particular. While Trump complained about being grilled on whether he knew “Arab name, Arab name, Arab name,” the senator rattled off an array of concerns, from Chinese interference with shipping lanes to radical Islamic terrorism.
“These are extraordinarily dangerous times that we live in, and the next president of the United States better be someone who understands these issues and has good judgment,” he said.
Bush cited Trump’s past praise for Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton, who he once suggested would be a tough negotiator with Iran as secretary of state.
The candidates also debated a push in Congress to threaten a government shutdown unless Democrats agree to defund Planned Parenthood. An impassioned Fiorina said they must “force President Obama to veto this bill” and Cruz concurred, but Kasich warned a shutdown would be counterproductive.
Turning to drug policy, Paul argued that the war on drugs had failed and disproportionately hurt minorities. Bush confessed to the audience that he had smoked marijuana himself “40 years ago” – and apologized to his mother – but indicated he was more focused on harder drugs. He said Colorado’s legalization of marijuana should be a “state decision,” while New Jersey Governor Chris Christie pledged to crack down on their experiment with federal force.
In one shock turn late in the debate, Trump declared that vaccines cause autism – a conspiracy theory that doctors overwhelmingly reject and warn is contributing to the return of otherwise preventable diseases. Carson, a renowned neurosurgeon, said that science supported vaccination, that there was “no correlation” with autism and deadpanned that Trump was an “okay doctor,” echoing Trump’s recent description of his own storied medical career.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee brought up the right flank on social issues, arguing that the Supreme Court’s recent ruling on gay marriage was not legally binding as “the courts can’t make a law” and Kentucky clerk Kim Davis was within her rights not to issue licenses.
Four candidates – Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), and former New York Gov. George Pataki – met earlier in the evening for an undercard debate.
Graham focused his remarks on defeating Islamic terrorism in Syria, where he’s called for ground troops to combat both ISIS and Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. Santorum played up his opposition to immigration, legal and illegal, which he complained hurt American workers. Jindal continued his insults toward the “narcissist” Trump while calling on Congress to threaten a government shutdown unless Planned Parenthood is defunded. Pataki struck a moderate tone, saying he would “fire” Kentucky clerk Kim Davis for refusing to issue marriage certificates to same-sex couples. Jindal and Santorum, by contrast, defended Davis.
The candidates won’t meet again for several weeks. The next GOP debate, hosted by CNBC, is Oct. 28 in Boulder, Colorado.