After bullying his way through the first Republican presidential debate a month ago, front-runner Donald Trump was clearly the target in Wednesday's second debate, and most of his opponents tried to take shots at him.
By all accounts, Carly Fiorina followed a strong performance in last month's undercard debate and made the most of her elevation to the prime-time stage, taking on Trump and scoring a couple mic-dropping moments.
One-time front-runner Jeb Bush was a bit more energetic, trading shots with Trump at the center of the stage and getting a laugh when he admitted to smoking marijuana 40 years ago but immediately apologizing to his mother. Where was that show of hands from the first debate when the subject of marijuana came up?
Home run CNN's Jake Tapper grooved a pitch to Fiorina, asking her to respond to Trump's remarks in a Rolling Stone interview about her appearance. Fiorina blasted it out of the park, saying, "I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr.Trump said."
I think that Fiorina response to Trump qualifies for a BOOM #CNNDebate— Deirdre Walsh (@deirdrewalshcnn) September 17, 2015
Trump's response that Fiorina "has a beautiful face and that she's a beautiful woman" came across as condescending and looked weak.
The runner up? Bob Kish,a veteran GOP admaker from Ohio, whose client list includes a number of conservative Republicans, suggested that with 11 candidates trying to get a word in, it was, “Jake, Jake, Jake…it’s my turn.”
Breakouts: Hands-down Fiorina. Republican strategist Ron Bonjean, a longtime Republican communicator who's worked for leadership in both the House and the Senate, said she was "the Iron Lady at the Reagan Library debate. She was strong, well prepared, and actually beat Donald Trump. Her impressive delivery on Iran, Russia, Hillary Clinton and America’s leadership in the world means that she will impress voters, rise in the polls and raise much more money from donors."
Fiorina's performance boosted her in predictive markets , in which bettors trade in who will win the nomination.
Kasich has slipped to 5th in @PredictIt_ markets, while Fiorina is now in 4th http://t.co/PUFz33Rhyv — Simone Pathe (@sfpathe) September 17, 2015
Sen. Marco Rubio also got high marks. Brian Walsh, a veteran GOP strategist with 20 years of experience on Capitol Hill, called the night a "Close call between Rubio and Fiorina who both needed big nights and they delivered with strong, succinct and specific responses on both foreign and domestic policy."
But Rubio's water bottle joke, a nod to his dash for a drink during his response to President Obama's State of the Union, fell flat.
There's a sad trombone for the Marco water joke — Maggie Haberman (@maggieNYT) September 17, 2015Losing ground: Kish said Dr. Ben Carson "felt weak in this high-energy, circus-like atmosphere. He also sounded weak on invading Afghanistan."
Walsh thought it was a close call between Trump and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee: "The latter simply because he wasn’t a factor and Trump because he’s the frontrunner and demonstrated that he has little grasp of policy details."
I'm guessing Huckabee left for dinner. — Stuart Rothenberg (@StuPolitics) September 17, 2015
Republican consultant Jason Roe, who has managed and advised congressional campaigns, thought while former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush's performance was stronger than in his initial debate last month, he didn't help himself on his right flank -- like opposing a wall along the U.S. southern border, and endorsing Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts and some of the court's rulings. "Those are dog whistles that reaffirm in their mind that he is just another Bush,” Roe said.
Jeb uses "conservative" often when he refers to his record. Will GOP voters believe him -- or care? — Stuart Rothenberg (@StuPolitics) September 17, 2015
Bonjean said that Sen. Rand Paul made "intellectual arguments during the debate, but simply did not make any traction during this debate."
In fact, one Republican operative who has worked on high-profile Senate races said that Paul's low poll numbers could be hurting his chances at re-election to his Senate seat.
“I think [he] may have put this Kentucky Senate seat in play,” the operative said. “If he persists in running for president, he’s going to do further damage to his brand. I think he’s going to give the Democrats an excellent opportunity to get a top-level recruit for that seat. He either gets out now and pours himself into his re-election, or loses the seat.”
Exceeding expectations: Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who has watched his poll numbers plummet with the ascension of Trump and a poor first debate performance, might have rebounded in Wednesday's debate.
Roe said while Walker wasn't one of the stars, “he rose to the occasion. He bought himself some more time.” Bonjean thought Walker "was much more aggressive this evening by taking on Trump and pushing his positions. He definitely has staying power." Wearing thin? With the most to lose as the front-runner, Trump's performance exposed his weaknesses. After dominating the airtime during the first two hourlong segments, Trump disappeared for much of the third when the focus turned to policy.
Is Trump still there? He must be bored. — Stuart Rothenberg (@StuPolitics) September 17, 2015
It could have been worse. While he was critical of the number of candidates on the stage, "it was a saving grace for him because the spotlight was so diversified. But we may have seen the high water mark for the Trump reality show after tonight," Walsh said.
Kish also thought Trump might have peaked: "He came across as a bully and name-caller; it’s beginning to wear thin."
Campaign killer? Will Wednesday's debate chase anyone from the race?
"Unfortunately, no," Kish said.
Bonjean thinks it might take a few more debates for some candidates "to see the writing on the wall."
Roe thinks Paul and Walker are the "most questionable" after Wednesday. “Walker and Rand Paul have underperformed from where they began this,” Roe said. “[I] don’t think either of them did anything that elevated them back to where they once were.”
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