On one of Donald Trump's most measured nights as a presidential candidate, it was his Republican rivals who turned up the volume on Wednesday, quarreling about their records, complaining about the questions and interrupting each other during a three-hour marathon debate that suggested the party's nomination battle is still a long way from being settled.
Standing center stage for the second debate of his short political career and flanked by 10 other contenders, Trump was involved in plenty of crossfire, much of it by his own making. The Republican front-runner mocked Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker's deflating poll numbers, ridiculed Senator Rand Paul's appearance, and refused to apologize for blaming former Florida Governor Jeb Bush's pro-immigration policies on his Mexican-American wife.
But the 69-year-old New Yorker spent much of the night at the Ronald Reagan presidential library in California showing he knew how to downshift. Trump backed away from his less-than-flattering comments about the appearance of the only woman in the Republican field, Carly Fiorina; he promised to lead the way to a “friendlier world”; and defended his ability to keep his composure if he were in charge of launch codes for the nation's nuclear weapons.
“Believe me, my temperament is very good, very calm,” Trump said, promising that if he's elected, “we will be respected outside of this country.”
Trump's performance wasn't the only surprise of the night. Other contenders used their turns to display new levels of passion and deeper levels of nuance on policy, showing Republican voters still have plenty to learn about their candidates with more than four months left before the first nominating contest in Iowa on Feb. 1. All together, CNN broadcast nearly five hours of Republican presidential rhetoric on Thursday; the prime-time debate was preceded by an undercard event for four candidates with lower poll numbers.
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, whose polling barely qualified him for the first two debates, had a few strong moments, including one where he interjected himself into a spat between Fiorina and Trump, who were disparaging each other's business records. “For the 55-year-old construction worker out in that audience tonight who doesn't have a job, who can't fund his child's education? I've got to tell you the truth, they could care less about your careers, they care about theirs,” Christie said.
One of the strangest moments involved a show of camaraderie between Trump and Bush, who have been conducting a long-distance feud on the campaign trail over whether the former governor is “low-energy.”
Asked to pick a Secret Service codename, Bush said “Ever-ready,” a reference to the battery brand that likes to advertise its high performance. “It's very high-energy, Donald,” Bush said, turning to Trump, who laughed, gave a thumbs-up, and then stuck out his palm, which Bush low-fived with a hard smack. This came after the two sparred early in the debate over Bush's contention that Trump unsuccessfully tried to buy his approval of casinos in Florida with campaign contributions. “I didn't,” Trump said. “Yes you did,” Bush retorted. “OK, more energy tonight,” condescended Trump.
As in the first Republican presidential debate, last month, Bush, 62, took a while to warm up. He gave a meandering answer to a question about a Kim Davis, the county clerk in Kentucky who was briefly jailed for refusing to issue same-sex marriage licenses, and struggled to rebut criticism from Trump that the former governor is “terrible“ on women's health issues. But he won a warm ovation from the crowd for defending his brother, former President George W. Bush, against an attack from Trump, who said last Republican in the White House “was such a disaster” that “Abraham Lincoln couldn't have been elected” in the 2008 election against Barack Obama.
“You know what? As it relates to my brother, there's one thing I know for sure: He kept us safe,” Bush said to a sustained applause.
Trump also pressed the flesh with Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon who surged in the polls after the first debate. Trump reached out for Carson's hand after the soft-spoken candidate interrupted a foreign policy discussion to remind viewers of his opposition to the Iraq war in 2003.
Carson broke with some of his rivals by supporting a higher minimum wage, which has been anathema to Republican leaders in Congress, while saying rich Americans shouldn't pay more taxes. “That's called socialism,” he said.
Trump said he'd unveil his tax plan in about two weeks, including a “major reduction” for the middle class. “The hedge fund guys won't like me as much as they like me right now,” said the billionaire, who called for raising the rates on hedge fund and private equity profits known as carried interest.
The debate also featured discussions on climate change, immigration and drug policy, with Bush being the only candidate on stage to admit to having smoked marijuana, which he said was when he was in high school.
“I'm sure that 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,” Bush said, to laughs from the crowd. His campaign quickly sent out an apologetic tweet.
On foreign policy, the candidates were divided on how to handle President Obama's nuclear deal with Iran. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas promised to “rip to shreds” the pact, a position that Paul called “absurd.” Ohio Governor John Kasich said he opposed the deal, but pointed out that it was negotiated in conjunction with allies.
“We are stronger when we work with the Western civilization, our friends in Europe,” Kasich said. “And just doing it on our own, I don’t think is the right policy.”
U.S. Senator Marco Rubio spoke forcefully about a more robust military presence for the United States, saying the nation has to worry about a “lunatic in North Korea,” a “gangster in Moscow” and, in Iran, “a radical Shia cleric with an apocalyptic vision of the future.”
"These are extraordinarily dangerous times that we live in," Rubio said. "And the next president of the United States better be someone that understands these issues and has good judgment about them."