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5 takeaways from the GOP debate

The second Republican debate was a marathon three-hour affair that tested candidates' endurance as much as their policy acumen and wit.

SIMI VALLEY, California -- The second Republican debate was a marathon three-hour affair that tested candidates' endurance as much as their policy acumen and wit. No one was surprised to see Donald Trump dominate the early proceedings with a steady diet of insults, but it was another candidate who left with the biggest buzz. Here are some of the things that stood out.

Fiorina’s big moment

Carly Fiorina’s dominant performance in the “kids table” debate earned her enough credibility that CNN tweaked their rules to include her on the main stage Wednesday. She made the most of her time and then some. Her appeal to the women in the crowd to judge Trump’s comments on her looks resulted in thunderous applause, she fought him to a draw on their checkered business backgrounds, and she delivered an emotional answer on defunding Planned Parenthood. Previously known as an anti-Hillary Clinton candidate, she seemed confident battling Trump for a broader role as the anti-establishment contender in the race.

“I'll tell you why people are supporting outsiders,” she said. “It's because you know what happens if someone's been in the system their whole life, they don't know how broken the system is. A fish swims in water, it doesn't know it's water. It's not that politicians are bad people, it's that they've been in that system forever.” 

Trump’s evolving campaign

Trump entered the first debate as a national phenomenon. At times in the second one, however, he felt like just another candidate. There were his signature taunts early on, but he seemed relatively quiet and disinterested for long stretches, especially during discussions on foreign policy. During some answers he seemed almost … low energy. The debate came a day after Trump hyped a big national security speech only to deliver a brief talk that barely touched on the topic. Can Trump keep up his enthusiasm as the campaign turns more and more to the kind of policy debates he’s shown little interest in discussing?

Walker’s back is against the wall

For Scott Walker, the debate likely did little to allay concerns from supporters that his once formidable candidacy is fading. Faced with a collapse in the polls nationally and in must-win Iowa, and fending off criticism over his lackluster first debate, the governor failed to produce a signature moment and seemed lost in the crowd for long stretches. He got in probably the most awkward jab at Trump of the night with his line that “we don't need an ‘Apprentice’ in the White House” and only really played his strongest card – his long list of conservative achievements in Wisconsin – late in the debate. At the end of the evening he had the least speaking time of any candidate, per an NPR count, at 8 minutes 29 seconds, versus over 18 minutes for Trump and 15 minutes for Bush.

Bush steadies the ship

Bush’s first debate was rough, thanks in part to a difficult set of questions focused mostly on his biggest weaknesses. His second debate may not have been a home run, but his backers will likely leave less anxious.

His goal heading into the night was clear: put to rest Trump’s constant attacks on his “low energy” drive. After the debate, his campaign staff emphasized his “passion” and “energy” over and over to reporters. They had something to hang their case on this time – Bush may not have been a fireball, but he steadily fought back against Trump on Wednesday. He demanded Trump apologize to his wife for linking her Mexican background to his immigration position, he defended his brother against a withering attack from Trump on his Iraq War record and earned big applause for it, and he even scored some laughs talking about his marijuana use 40 years ago.

Kasich plays the moderate

Kasich’s big moment in the first debate came in an answer on same sex marriage, where he said he accepted the Supreme Court’s decision and stressed a need for compassion on gay rights. This time he continued to actively brand himself as the (relative) moderate in the race. He defended at length his pledge to enforce the Iran deal rather than “rip it to shreds” as Ted Cruz threatened to do, explaining that it would alienate America’s allies and leave Iran in better position to go nuclear. In another exchange that pitted him against Cruz, he was the lone voice urging Republicans not to shut down the government over Planned Parenthood. Kasich is clearly making a play for the party’s most left-leaning voters, which could make trouble for a candidate like Bush who’s trying to consolidate moderates as well while reaching out to the right.