early and often

The Key Moments of the Second GOP Presidential Debate

Republican Candidates Take Part In Debates At Reagan Library In Simi Valley
The debate at the Reagan Library on September 16, 2015. Photo: Justin Sullivan/2015 Getty Images

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 onstage 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

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 front-runner when he revealed what he’d pick for his Secret Service nickname: “Eveready. 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., Washington Post

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 Reyes, 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 to 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 onstage, 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.”

How he did:
“He was handicapped somewhat by a lack of speaking time but he did extremely well — for the second straight debate — with the time he was given. Rubio was extremely knowledgeable — almost to the point of being too rehearsed — on foreign policy; for most of the debate he seemed like the person on the stage who knew the most about virtually every topic being discussed. Rubio didn’t get a huge bounce from his strong showing in the first debate. Will this time be different?” —Chris Cillizza, Washington Post

“As strong as he was in the first debate, he was stronger this time. The points he made on foreign affairs and national security were correct and crisply stated. And he showed flashes of humor. Siding with Jeb Bush over Donald Trump, he said he answered in Spanish when questioned in Spanish.  ‘I want them to hear that from me, not from a Spanish translator.’” —Fred Barnes, The Weekly Standard

Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz also bear mentioning. Rubio was strong on foreign policy and immigration, showing perhaps the deepest understanding of the intricacies of the challenges facing our nation in dealing with our illegal immigrant population and securing the border. His emphasis on an immigration plan based on what people can contribute is likely to become a major talking point.” —Douglas E. Schoen, Fox News

Most memorable moments:
Huckabee used some of his limited screen time to argue that the court telling Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis that she can’t refuse to issue marriage licenses to gay couples amounts to the “criminalization of Christianity.” “We made accommodation to the Fort Hood shooter to let him grow a beard,” Huckabee said. “We made accommodations to the detainees at Gitmo — I’ve been to Gitmo and I’ve seen the accommodations that we have to the Muslim detainees who killed Americans. You’re telling me that you cannot make an accommodation for an elected Democrat county clerk from Rowan County, Kentucky?”

How he did:
“I give him credit for fearlessly defending Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who refused to issue a marriage license to a gay couple. No one else did. Huckabee said his wife should be on the $10 bill. Really.” —Fred Barnes, The Weekly Standard

Governor Huckabee did fine, especially on blasting Obama’s agreement with Iran, but his participation did not raise him above the field and will not likely give his candidacy a much-needed shot in the arm.” —Liz Peek, Fox News

Most memorable moments:
Paul kicked off the discussion of Bush’s youthful drug use while advocating for criminal justice reform, saying, “Kids who have privilege like you do don’t go to jail. But the poor kids in the inner city still go to jail.”

He was also the target of one of the weirdest Trump insults. When asked to discuss whether he’s prepared to be president, Trump suddenly lashed out at Paul, saying, “First of all, Rand Paul shouldn’t even be on this stage. He got number 11. He’s got one percent in the polls and how he got up here — there’s far too many people anyway.” Paul said he found Trump’s remark funny, adding, “I think there’s a sophomoric quality about Mr. Trump … about his visceral response to attack people on their appearance, short, tall, fat ugly.” Trump responded, “I never attacked him on his looks and believe me there’s plenty of subject matter there — that I can tell you.”

Paul also had the worst Secret Service name by far, saying he’d like to go by “Justice Never Sleeps.”

How he did:
“Those lines [about criminal justice reform and his opposition to the Iraq War] did not earn Paul a lot of applause Wednesday night. This Grand Old Party does not well remember — nor respect — the wisdom of Dwight Eisenhower’s warnings about a military-industrial complex or the example of ’old-right’ Republicans who opposed military adventurism. But Paul displayed a steady awareness of that history. His great contribution to the debate was to offer an alternative vision when it came to the bombast and bluster that came from many of the other contenders — and that, frankly, comes from across the political spectrum.” —John Nichols, The Nation

“He got very little time, and the only thing he’ll be remembered for is a Trump insult about his poll numbers and looks.” —Ryan J. Rusak, Dallas Morning News

Most memorable moments: Early on Kasich tried to position himself as the adult in the room, saying after a spat between Trump, Paul, and Walker, “If I were sitting at home watching this back and forth, I’d be inclined to turn it off. People at home … want to know what we’re going to do to fix this place. They don’t want all this fighting.” The other candidates obliged by ignoring Kasich for much of the night.

How he did:
“John Kasich seemed to vanish for long chunks but, when present, managed to be both avuncular and authoritative: an effective, appealing combination.” —Frank Bruni, New York Times

“Kasich sounded way too John Kerry, with his insistence on yammering about America’s alliances, while not scoring the sorts of ‘I’m a different kind of Republican’ points he needs to win New Hampshire. He sounded out of date talking about the 90s, and Sen. Ted Cruz absolutely crushed him in an exchange about the Iran deal, which Kasich inexplicably refuses to renounce.” —Dan McLaughlin, Red State

Ohio Gov. John Kasich had his moments; calling for a focus on issues and rattling off his Ohio record and work in balancing the budget, he reiterated his image of can-do reformer. On foreign policy he tried to sound a moderate note, saying he would not necessarily rip up the Iran deal. He vowed to slap on sanctions if Iran cheated. But of course the problem is that Iran may abide by the deal and thereby waltz into the club of nuclear powers. His hangdog, rumpled look detracts from his image as a ready-for-the-Oval Office leader.” —Jennifer Rubin, Washington Post

Most memorable moments:
Christie kicked things off with his own hand-raising bit, asking CNN to turn the camera on the audience during his introduction. He asked people to raise their hands if they felt their lives improved during the Obama years. No one did, but the stunt fell flat.

Christie was tough but jovial, such as when he was asked about Ben Carson’s comment that career politicians “have their finger in the air to see and do what is politically expedient.” “I know Ben doesn’t think that about me,” Christie said, drawing laughs. “I’m sure he was talking about one of the other guys.”

In an ironic twist, the notoriously belligerent governor also chided Trump and Fiorina for bickering about their business careers. “You’re both successful people, congratulations,” he said. “You know who’s not successful? The middle class in this country. They could care less about your careers. Let’s stop this childish back and forth.”

How he did:
“Offered a powerful it’s-about-the-voters message, but was left out of the most robust exchanges, until midway in the game when he interrupted a Trump-Fiorina dialogue on their careers. Showed good humor for much of the night and made the most of his time.” —Mark Halperin, Bloomberg Politics

But it was not only Fiorina who scored big. Christie was also strong throughout, and quite moving when relating 9/11 when he could not reach his wife, who worked near the World Trade Center, for more than five hours. He interjected with effective pleas to focus on working Americans, reminding voters of his record on drug rehabilitation and on the need for a strong military response after 9/11. He was loose and relaxed, willing to push back on Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) for supporting drug legalization and Dr. Ben Carson on wanting to use ‘diplomacy’ after 9/11. He also took up entitlement reform, making clear he was willing to take benefits away from super wealthy recipients such as Trump.”  —Jennifer Rubin, Washington Post

Most memorable moments: Fiorina made a passionate stand against Planned Parenthood, daring Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama to watch video of “a fully formed fetus on the table, its heart is beating, its legs are kicking, then someone says we have to keep it alive to harvest its brain.” She added, “This is about the character of our nation. And if we will not stand up and force President Obama to veto this bill, shame on us.”

During the discussion of the failed war on drugs, she said, “My husband, Frank, and I buried a child because of drug addiction. We must put more money into drug treatment.”

She drew tremendous applause with her response to Trump criticizing her looks in a Rolling Stone profile. “I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said,” she said. Trump tried to prove he isn’t sexist by replying, “I think she’s got a beautiful face and she’s a beautiful woman.”

How she did:
“A crisp, confident, dignified, and, often, dominating presentation. Laying into Trump over his ‘face’ remark, showing passion on her pro-life position, and speaking movingly about her daughter’s death after a drug addiction were three of the biggest moments of the night. Many TV viewers heard the strongest portions of her improved stump speech for the first time, to her benefit. Mostly avoided direct conflict with Trump (while projecting disdain), until she slammed his bankruptcies. Displayed foreign policy chops and anti-Hillary flair. Big crowd favorite.” —Mark Halperin, Bloomberg Politics

Fiorina was the clear winner. She came with a store of zingers, notably directed at Trump … More importantly, Fiorina repeatedly delivered clear, crisp, bullet-pointed answers to questions about policy — showing up her rivals, who tended to speak in more sweeping generalities. Often, those proposals didn’t add up once you looked at them closely. For example, her ‘plan’ for Iran involved bringing the rest of the world back around to reinstituting a sanctions regime against Tehran, something that most experts reject as unrealistic. No matter: On a stage where no one seemed as sharp, it was enough to impress.” —David Graham, The Atlantic

How they did:

“It was a debate that worked almost in spite of itself. As the hours dragged on, the issues were indeed hashed out: whether a Republican president should immediately tear up the Iran deal or wait and see; whether the federal government should be shut down in the service of defunding Planned Parenthood; whether a wall along the Mexican border is a feasible plan or empty bluster. But that substance had to muscle its way through the show business, by which I mean Donald Trump’s attempt to turn everything into an adolescent popularity contest and CNN’s willingness to reward that by filtering the entire evening through the prism of the Republican field’s proven ratings magnet: Trump, Trump, Trump.” —Frank Bruni, New York Times

There will be lots of discussion about just who won or lost the debate, but surely everyone can agree on this: Dear God was it long. CNN’s decision to stretch the proceedings to a punishing 3 hours turned what was always going to be a rather painful slog through the dankest corners of Republican orthodoxy into a grim ordeal. It was so long that by the time it finally ended, some of the candidates onstage, like Scott Walker and Marco Rubio, had taken on the air of sickly medieval patients about to collapse from consumption or the plague.” —Jack Mirkinson, Salon

CNN’s interrogative strategy seemed particularly weak in comparison with last month’s Fox New debate, which was lively and great. The Fox moderators often asked sharp questions that made the candidates uncomfortable, just as they should have. CNN, by contrast, seemed determined to encourage the candidates to make ​each other​ feel uncomfortable. The candidates mostly didn’t take the bait, and the result was a boring and inessential three-hour snoozefest.” —Justin Peters, Slate

Winners and Losers of the Second GOP Debate