No One Performed Better Than Carly Fiorina in Second Republican Debate

Ben Carson also shined. Jeb Bush held his own. No one, however, delivered Trump a knockout blow.

ICYMI: The GOP Debate in 3 Minutes

Businesswoman Carly Fiorina fought her way into Wednesday's Republican debate, hosted by CNN, by getting the network to change its inclusion standards. It was a gutsy and fateful move. Millions watched her dazzle in, and sometimes dominate, the marathon session held at the Reagan presidential library in Simi Valley, California. 

Two other outsider candidates, polling front-runners Donald Trump and Ben Carson, played to type and to their strengths—and neither is likely to be hurt by their performances. Carson, in fact, might have even done himself some good. 

As for the other eight hopefuls on stage, there were no game-changing star turns. And no one, to be sure, who had a night like Fiorina. 

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 Clinton flair. Big crowd favorite.

 

Textbook steady Carson demeanor, one of his core strengths. Never the attacked or the attacker. Fluid and focused, showing growth as a candidate. No standout moments, but was solid throughout, and was given plenty of opportunity to talk. Spoke in the Tea Party/“We the People” idiom.

 

CNNDebateTrump

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.

 

CNNDebateBush

Well prepared and thoughtful, but occasionally showed weak follow-through. Gave a clumsy answer about his father, brother, and foreign policy and attempted several stumbling defenses of W. (But, in one of his better moments, dramatically backed his brother by citing 43’s homeland security record directly to Trump's face.) Initially showed a deft touch dealing with the billionaire, but eventually got out-bullied. Looked far more presidential than at the first debate, but a bit abstract at times. Still showing more head than heart.

 

CNNDebateRubio

Strong, savvy, and on brand when he got a chance to speak, but was excluded from large sections of the conversation, repeating his pattern from the first debate (which didn't help his poll standing). Had good moments in the second half. Talked foreign policy with aplomb, and made the case that he is an outsider.

 

CnnDebateChristie

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.

 

CNNDebateKasich

Much stronger in the beginning, when he seemed sharp and relaxed, than at the end, when his energy seemed to wane. Assertively took the stage on occasion, sometimes getting a little hot, but overall displayed maturity and lack of melodrama. Hit his core themes of unity and problem-solving, but took some stances, such as on the Iran nuclear deal, that could hurt him with voters. Lapsed a bit into government-ese.

 

CNNDebateCruz

Maintained his rhythm and energy even when he didn't get in the mix for long stretches, but his absence prevented him from making a consistent significant impression. Showed his skill at speaking to the camera. Cleverly positioned himself to inherit Trump and Carson support if they eventually decline.

 

CNNDebateWalker

Self-consciously aggressive against Trump at the start, then disappeared for long segments. Rarely hit on his core message. Few alpha moments.

 

CNNDebateHuckabee

Struggled to get into the conversation, let alone dominate, as he did at times in 2008.

 

CNNDebatePaul

Not much of a factor. Still caught betwixt and between on foreign policy. Hit a few libertarian high notes.

Note: Grades reflect many aspects of the candidates' performance, including style, substance, and crowd reaction, and whether a candidate seemed to improve or hurt his or her overall standing based on the debate.

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