Carly Fiorina won the second Republican primary debate, continuing her rise to contender status by a display of passion, command of detail, and ability to parry attackers.
By contrast, Jeb Bush once again failed to rise above the pack, perhaps leaving the high rollers who have gambled on his campaign wondering if they are betting on the bay.
Bush lacked the sharp edge of Fiorina, and certainly that of front-runner Donald Trump. The man who was supposed to be dominating this race needed to be great Wednesday night, and he definitely fell short.
Trump moderated his tone and did himself little harm, launching his usual bruising attacks on his opponents and continuing to offer up the political incorrectness that has helped make him a hit.
“We have a country where, to assimilate, you have to speak English,” Trump said.
While Trump is often given a pass on his unconventional campaign, it’s unclear whether his continued unwillingness to talk specifics will begin to hurt him.
“We will do something really special. We will make this country greater than ever before,” Trump said, echoing comments he has made before. “We’ll find solutions and the world will respect us like never before.”
Trump’s only serious proposal so far has been on immigration. He said a tax plan was on the way — in two weeks.
But Fiorina soared, just as she did during the first debate of the season, when she was part of the second-tier contest hosted by Fox News in Cleveland last month.
Fiorina shook the rafters with a searing description of the videos that have exposed Planned Parenthood’s harvesting of organs from fetuses.
“I dare Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama to watch these tapes, watch a fully-formed fetus on the table with a heart beating and legs kicking while someone says, ‘We have to keep it alive to harvest its brain,'” she said. “If we will not stand up and force President Obama to veto this bill, shame on us.”
Fiorina noted that she and her husband “buried a child to drug addiction,” drawing a sharp contrast to Bush’s meaningless “confession” that he had smoked pot decades before. “The pot today is very different than pot Jeb just admitted to smoking 40 years ago,” Fiorina said.
Smartly, Fiorina held her passion in check when addressing Trump’s earlier comments that she had an ugly face, using it to probe one of his weak points: the charge that he is misogynist.
“I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said,” Fiorina said icily. Loud applause followed.
“I think she’s got a beautiful face and I think she’s a beautiful woman,” Trump responded, but his attempt at magnanimity appeared to fall flat with the audience at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, Calif.
Nevertheless, Trump prodded at what could be a weakness for Fiorina, noting she was fired as CEO of Hewlett-Packard and that the company has done poorly in the aftermath of her stewardship. Fiorina didn’t deny the charges, but sought to minimize them and struck hard at Trump, zeroing in on his bankruptcy filings.
“That is precisely the way you ran your companies. You ran up mountains of debt, as well as losses, using other people’s money,” Fiorina said, as Trump shook his head. “Why should we trust you to manage the finances of this nation?”
Fiorina, though, wasn’t immune to recycling old applause lines herself. “Unlike Mrs. Clinton, I know that flying is an activity, not an accomplishment,” she said. Still, she drew applause, with many in the audience never having heard the line.
Ironically, Jeb Bush’s best moments may have come as he was confronted with what is supposed to be his biggest weakness — his legacy as the brother and son of presidents who aren’t held in particularly high regard by the GOP base or the rest of the country.
After Trump charged that George W. Bush “gave us Barack Obama” by having a disastrous presidency, Bush responded: “You know what? As it relates to my brother, there is one thing I know for sure: He kept us safe.”
Bush may be starting to find that references to his family — he made several Wednesday night — will help rather than hurt him, since it seems to be his main claim to distinctiveness from among the presidential pack. The small crowd of 500 applauded.
Also strong-arming his way into the forefront of the debate was a newly assertive Chris Christie, who was truer to his reputation Wednesday night as a tough talking New Jersey governor.
“I’ve vetoed 400 bills from a crazy, liberal Democratic legislature,” Christie said.
At one point he demanded that CNN pan the cameras to the audience, seeking a show of hands by those who think that “in today’s Barack Obama America, your children will have a better life than you’ve had.” The network meekly complied.
Christie got fired up after Trump and Fiorina debated their business qualifications, saying in his frank way, “the 55-year-old construction worker out in that audience tonight who doesn’t have a job” couldn’t care less about their business histories.
At one point, Christie swatted away efforts by Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Fiorina to step on his lines. “John, John, I’m not done yet, John,” Christie said.
When Fiorina tried to seize the moment, Christie shoved back. “Carly, listen. You can interrupt anybody else on this stage — you can’t interrupt me,” he said.
Ben Carson, who is running second in many polls, continued to do what has gotten him where he is. He seemed like a reasonable un-politician.
“I hope that I sound logical, because when I look at the United States, I see a lot of things that are not logical,” Carson said.
Sen. Ted Cruz also delivered a solid performance, emphasizing his opposition to “amnesty” and Planned Parenthood while continuing with what seems to be his chief strategic objective: Tying himself to Trump. “I’m very glad that Donald Trump’s being in this race has forced the mainstream media finally to talk about illegal immigration,” Cruz said.
Scott Walker, who has been dropping like a lead anchor in the polls, failed to seize the moment in a way that could reverse his sagging fortunes. Sen. Marco Rubio, meanwhile, turned in an adequate performance, but probably not one that will change his position much in the polls.
Gov. John Kasich likewise had some strong moments early in the debate, decrying the ad hominem attacks that have defined the early days, but probably did little to move himself out of the middle of the pack.
Sen. Rand Paul had ample media time to express his small-government libertarian views, but he also took some lumps early on from Trump.
“Rand Paul shouldn’t even be on this stage,” Trump said in the first few minutes. “He’s at one percent in the polls.” At another point, Trump suggested Paul was ugly, too. “I never attacked him on his looks. And believe me, there’s plenty of subject matter.”
Trump also put away Bush a couple of times with one liners, winning a battle to speak by flummoxing him: “More energy tonight, I like that.”
Denying a charge by Bush that he sought to legalize gambling in Florida, Trump sounded like the tough businessman he is: “If I wanted it, I would have gotten it.”
But Trump will now find himself dealing more and more with another tough customer from the business world — and she doesn’t seem as easily rattled by Trump as Bush does.
This piece first appeared on PoliZette.