SIMI VALLEY, Calif. — Donald Trump spoke the longest and the loudest at a primetime debate here Wednesday, but it was Carly Fiorina who won rave reviews for a polished performance that stood out on a crowded stage of Republican presidential hopefuls.
At times, the debate moved along without Trump, as the billionaire mogul repeatedly found himself on the defensive and his limited policy knowledge exposed. Fiorina delivered some of the biggest applause lines and distinguished herself with depth on issues, steeliness and agility in responding to attacks from Trump.
During a three-hour debate on a visibly toasty and uncomfortable stage, much of the discussion was notably substantive and brought into stark relief the real policy differences within the Republican Party. The candidates sparred over issues domestic and foreign, from abortion rights to immigration policy to the rise of Islamic State terrorists and the growing aggression of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“Russia is a bad actor, but Vladimir Putin is someone we should not talk to, because the only way he will stop is to sense strength and resolve on the other side, and we have all of that within our control,” Fiorina said. “We could rebuild the Sixth Fleet. I will. We haven’t. We could rebuild the missile defense program. We haven’t. I will.”
Still, the debate returned again and again to Trump — specifically, questions about the front-runner’s character, temperament and judgment as a potential commander in chief.
Tangling with former Florida governor Jeb Bush over the Iraq war, Trump said he opposed former president George W. Bush’s 2003 invasion. “I’m a very militaristic person,” he said, “but you need to know when you need to use the military. It’s about judgment.”
Bush countered by noting that Trump once said he thought Hillary Rodham Clinton would have been the best negotiator to deal with the Iranians. “The lack of judgment and the lack of understanding about how the world works is really dangerous,” he said.
And when Trump said George W. Bush’s presidency was “such a disaster,” Jeb Bush defended his brother: “He kept us safe. He really did.”
“I don’t know,” Trump shot back. “I don’t feel so safe.”
Later on, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie recalled his service as a U.S. attorney under George W. Bush. “I absolutely believe that what the president did at the time was right,” he said. Referring to the Bush administration’s stepped-up pursuit of terrorism suspects, Christie added that he supported Bush’s instructions to federal prosecutors: “Don’t prosecute these people after the crime is committed, intervene before the crime happens.”
Many of the candidates spelled out specific plans for deterring a nuclear Iran and dealing with Putin. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, for instance, tried to show strength talking about foreign affairs and accusing Obama of not keeping the nation safe. “We are eviscerating our military and we have a president that is more respectful to the ayatollah of Iran than he is to the prime minister of Israel,” the Florida senator said.
Other candidates sparred over the nuclear agreement with Iran: Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker said they would rip it up on Day One of their presidencies, while several others disagreed. “It’s not a strategy to tear up an agreement,” Bush said.
Trump displayed less facility and depth on world affairs than the senators and governors onstage. He spoke in broad and idiosyncratic strokes, such as when he said Putin had “no respect” for Obama and that, if he were elected, “I will get along, I think, with Putin. . .and we will have a much more stable world.” He acknowledged his relative lack of knowledge about the major actors and running conflicts in the Middle East, which was exposed in a recent radio interview with Hugh Hewitt, one of the debate’s questioners.
In a telephone interview early Thursday with MSNBC, Trump voiced confidence that he performed well in the debate. He said Fiorina and Rubio “did well” and Bush “did fine.” But Trump added that he “didn’t see a standout” among his rivals.
“A lot of people didn’t get any time,” he said.
Trump spoke for more than 18 minutes, more than anyone else. Bush was right behind with 17 minutes. Fiorina got about 13 minutes.
The CNN debate’s opening minutes revolved, as the Republican nominating contest has all summer, around Trump. Fiorina dismissed him as “a wonderful entertainer.” Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky slammed his character and temperament as “sophomoric.” Bush suggested he lacked a “steady hand.” Walker said he bankrupted his companies and warned he would do the same to the country.
Trump defended himself with the confidence bordering on braggadocio that has defined his campaign.
“I’ve dealt with people all over the world,” Trump said. “Everything I’ve done personally has been a tremendous success.”
The stakes for Wednesday’s debate were high, holding the potential to shake up the race anew. The first GOP debate, on Aug. 6, drew a record television audience of 24 million people and scrambled the field, providing a jolt of momentum to candidates like Fiorina and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and delivering setbacks to those like Walker who struggled to stand out on stage.
The debate was held at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, on a stage built atop three stories of scaffolding with the jetliner that served as Air Force One in Reagan’s time standing as a grand and imposing backdrop.
The debate came at the end of a raucous summer on the campaign trail in which a cast of political outsiders have upended the nominating contest in both parties. Trump and Carson have gained traction by running against the establishment and by feeding the angry electorate’s hunger for authenticity.
Carson reminded the debate audience that pundits doubted his candidacy. “I in no way am willing to get in the bed with special interest groups or lick the boots of billionaires,” he said.
Fiorina, whose standing in the polls relegated her to the undercard debate last month, took advantage of her debut on the big stage. The former technology executive — the only woman on a stage of 11 candidates — had a handful of big applause lines, including for her vivid remarks describing her opposition to abortion and on whether to defund Planned Parenthood, which is under fire for a series of disputed undercover videotapes.
Other candidates, including Walker and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, also spoke forcefully against abortion rights and Planned Parenthood funding.
Later in the evening, Fiorina spoke emotionally about the scourge of drug addiction. “We need to tell young people the truth: Drug addiction is an epidemic and it is taking too many of your young people know this sadly from personal experience,” she said, noting that she lost a stepdaughter to drugs.
From the outset, the debate’s moderator, CNN anchor Jake Tapper, tried to prod Trump and the candidates with whom he has sparred on the campaign trail in recent weeks to confront each other on stage.
Tapper asked Fiorina to respond to Trump’s interview with Rolling Stone in which he criticized the appearance of her face.
“I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said,” Fiorina said, drawing cheers from the live audience of about 500.
Trump responded: “I think she’s got a beautiful face and I think she’s a beautiful woman.”
Some of the sharpest exchanges came between Trump and Bush.
All summer, Trump has taunted Bush, including over whether he lacks the physical energy to be president. Bush in recent weeks mounted a fierce counter-attack, highlighting Trump’s past support for Democrats and liberal causes. On Wednesday night, the two men, standing only a few feet apart on stage, confronted each other face-to-face.
Tapper asked Bush whether he would be comfortable with Trump controlling the nation’s nuclear codes. Bush demurred, but said, “You can’t just talk about this stuff and insult leaders around the world and expect a good result. You have to do this with a steady hand.”
Walker interjected himself into the debate with a reference to Trump’s former NBC show: “Mr. Trump, we don’t need an ‘apprentice’ in the White House. We have one now.” That sparked a prolonged back-and-forth between Walker and Trump over Walker’s fiscal record in Wisconsin and Trump’s history of bankruptcies at his companies. Bush stood silently in the middle, smiling awkwardly.
But minutes later, Bush and Trump were at loggerheads again. Bush defended himself against Trump’s charges that he would be a “puppet” to his wealthy donors. He suggested it was Trump who once tried to control Bush, by donating to his Florida gubernatorial campaign at the same time he was pushing for legalized gambling in the state so his properties could profit.
As Bush talked, Trump smirked, made uncomfortable facial expressions and chimed in with insults. “More energy tonight,” he told Bush. “I like that.”
Trump’s insults of Paul were even nastier. After suggesting Paul “shouldn’t even be on this stage” because he was polling so low, Trump added: “I never attacked him on his looks — and believe me, there’s plenty of subject matter right there.”
With so much attention paid to the personal barbs by or about Trump, some other candidates, including Ohio Gov. John Kasich, grew frustrated.
“If I was sitting at home watching this back and forth, I’d be inclined to turn it off,” Kasich interjected at one point. “People at home want to know what we’re going to do to fix this place.”
Sullivan reported from Washington. David A. Fahrenthold in Washington contributed to this report.