Reactions to the Second GOP Presidential Debate

We asked our editors and contributors for their reaction to the second Republican presidential debate Wednesday. Their responses are below:

John Hart, Opportunity Lives Editor-in-Chief, @johnhart333

Tonight we saw why this is the strongest Republican presidential field in a generation. With few exceptions, America would be a stronger and more prosperous country if our candidates could take turns serving as president.

The tone of the debate was more serious and less novel than the first iteration, which was a good thing. Marco Rubio and Carly Fiorina both were exceptional and showed how candidates behave when they arrive with a fully developed world-view, a set of core principles, specific policy ideas and the confidence to be themselves.

Fiorina’s exchange with Trump about his “face” insult was a moment with meaning because it revealed their character. Fiorina’s impromptu line that women “heard very clearly” what Trump said was a harpoon that stuck, according to moderator Hugh Hewitt. This may be remembered as the night Trump peaked, but we’ll see. Trump was low content and showed that peace through shtick is not a foreign policy.

Marco Rubio, on the other hand, was fabulous on foreign policy and was articulating and projecting a world-view rather than an “I-did-my-homework-and-remembered-my-oneliners-and-key-facts” vibe candidates sometimes project. And Rubio’s passing but deliberate and nuanced statement that the Establishment had lined up against him separated him from other candidates like Cruz who overplay their thin anti-establishment resumes at the expense of offering a compelling vision for the future. But none of the candidates did poorly and 87 percent of the field had moments of looking presidential. And Jeb Bush’s “Ever Ready” line was funny. He very well may be the one who keeps on going and going.

Gillum Ferguson, Opportunity Lives Deputy Editor, @GillumFerguson

Carly Fiorina was the clear winner, but I think a close second was Rubio. They’re both distinguishing themselves as the best communicators in the field, Republican or Democrat. Each gave passionate and knowledgeable answers (Fiorina’s retort to Trump, Rubio on foreign policy). Expect both to get a bump in the polls. And if neither receives the nomination, they’ll both be on the shortlist to round out the Republican ticket.

Jeb needed to pick up the slack and he did. The turning point was when he gave a strong defense of his brother’s record in the face of Trump’s abuse. “He kept us safe,” Jeb said, and the crowd erupted in applause (Aaron Maclean of the Free Beacon does a good job explaining why). There are certainly a large number of Republicans who may not look as kindly on Bush 43’s era, but for Trump to imply that he was worse than Barack Obama may be off-putting to many of his supporters.

Carson was similar to the first debate minus the witty closing statement. In other words: lackluster. His style is much more conducive to speaking at length in a laid back setting, which plays well in the town halls of Iowa and New Hampshire but less so on a national debate stage (though I assume he’ll take that trade).

Christie put in a solid performance. His answer on whether he’s a politician or an outsider (“I’m a Republican in New Jersey! I wake up every morning as an outsider!”) showed his personality. Walker showed more energy than last time (a low bar, to be sure) but didn’t have many memorable moments. Rand Paul looked like the debate stage was the last place on earth he wanted to be.

Most importantly, when the debate moved on to substantive policy questions and above the petty fights CNN was desperate to produce, Trump faded into the background. Republicans are lucky to have so many candidates who can speak knowledgeably about the issues facing our country.

Ellen Carmichael, OL Senior Writer, @ellencarmichael

Winners: Carly Fiorina, Sen. Marco Rubio, Gov. Chris Christie and Gov. Scott Walker.

Middle of the Pack: Gov. Mike Huckabee, Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Ted Cruz.

Bottom of the Bunch: Gov. John Kasich, Sen. Rand Paul, Dr. Ben Carson, Donald Trump.

Rubio was incredible in the debate, but sadly, did not have an opportunity to discuss his impressive record on fiscal matters. He’s strong on foreign policy, but voters deserve to know about the hard work he’s done on these issues, too.

Fiorina was electric. While, at times, her responses seem scripted, she was impassioned, resolute and quick-witted. Her graceful response to Trump, as well as her forceful condemnation of Planned Parenthood, were the highlights.

Christie exceeded expectations. He remained focused on the American people and reaffirmed his conservative credentials. I think we’ll see an uptick in support for him. Walker’s situation was quite sad. He barely had the chance to speak, and that’s a shame because he has a compelling story and good ideas. He made better use of his time in this debate than the last one. You can read my in-depth grade for each candidate here.

Carrie Sheffield, OL Senior Writer, @carriesheffield

Hands down best performers of the night were Carly Fiorina and Marco Rubio. Fiorina gave strong, emotive answers on everything from foreign policy to Planned Parenthood, and drug policy. Rubio, a member of Senate Foreign Relations Committee, clearly shone on issues of national security, rendering specific critiques of Obama’s failed foreign policy, including the flawed Iran deal.

Fiorina didn’t take the bait in the opening question, where the CNN moderator tried to pit her against Donald Trump. This set the tone for all the others, and it quickly became clear that while Trump’s a terrific entertainer, in tonight’s debate he’s been lackluster because it was about policy and not theatrics. While Trump faded tonight onstage, the question is how will he spin it? Moderators and fellow candidates weren’t attacking him, so he won’t dominate the headlines as he did after the first debate. Jeb Bush and Scott Walker were solid, but they didn’t offer the breakout performance they needed to rise above the pack.

Israel Ortega, OL Senior Writer, @IzzyOrtega

With the pressure on, Carly Fiorina took on the contentious issue of birthright citizenship and refused to play to the nativist crowd. Instead, she explained the arduous and long-slog process that is required in amending the U.S. Constitution including requiring a two-thirds majority vote in Congress and approval by two-thirds of the states’ legislatures.

This approach may play to Ms. Fiorina’s advantage at a time when the American electorate is rewarding authenticity in candidates running for office. It may not entirely placate those that are convinced that immigrants are responsible for all of our country’s ills, but it does demonstrate that a Fiorina president will not yield easily to public pressure.

Nonetheless, there were others on the stage in the Reagan Presidential library that did well by pressing the network’s moderators to turn the attention away from Donald Trump and back to the issues that matter most to the American people. Among the most forceful were Governor Chris Christie (his emotional September 11 story) and Governor Scott Walker (minimum wage and job creation) – two candidates that are desperately looking for a boost. At the end of the day, the American people are ultimately looking for solutions and not merely criticisms of the Obama Administration. The rest of the GOP crowd should bear in mind that there is an election past the primary.

Daniel Huizinga, OL Contributor, @HuizingaDaniel

Five hours is a long time – but after an entire evening of watching the Republican candidates duke it out on the big stage, it’s clear that some candidates are starting to set themselves apart.

Donald Trump, as expected, brought a fair amount of entertainment. But despite CNN’s best efforts (beginning questions with quotes from Trump, constantly displaying him on split-screen during other candidates’ messages), you could tell it was getting old after awhile. By the end, the candidates had effectively subdued Trump’s biggest insults and his lack of policy knowledge was beginning to show as he faded away.

Fiorina had high expectations coming into the “varsity” debate for the first time, and she exceeded them. She was eloquent and thoughtful while not hesitating to fight back against attacks from Trump and others.

Overall, I think Rubio seemed to win most with his answers. Though he didn’t get as much speaking time as the other candidates, it seemed that every time he opened his mouth, everyone listened. Rubio struck me as knowledgeable about foreign policy, legitimately concerned with improving opportunity, and well-prepared to respond to every issue – from Russia to gun control to climate change.

Jeb Bush was a rollercoaster, often strong (when defending his brother) yet inevitably awkward, especially when he tried to engage with Trump. Huckabee, Cruz, Paul, and Kasich seemed to play a minor and disappointing role in this debate, with Walker and Christie faring somewhat better. Ben Carson? His finest moment was speaking about vaccines, when his expertise shined. But otherwise, I don’t think he really added anything to his existing support.

We’ve gone from 17 candidates to 15. So far, these debates have been more impressive and substantive than any I can remember. Maybe intense competition is a good thing for politics after all.

Sarah Rumpf, OL Contributor, @rumpfshaker

Carly Fiorina proved that not only does she belong on the main stage, she’s a serious contender who can hold her own against anybody. She was more effective at smacking down Donald Trump than anyone else has been yet. His attempt to backtrack his petty attack on her looks (“I think she’s got a beautiful face, and I think she’s a beautiful woman.”) sounded fake and patronizing, whereas she appeared confident and tough as nails in all her answers. I watched the debate with about a hundred members of the Seminole County (just north of Orlando, Florida) Republicans, and Fiorina was tonight’s winner in their straw poll by a strong margin.

More importantly than her ability to throw down a witty comeback – and, oh, she certainly was witty – Fiorina shined when it came to discussing policy proposals and foreign policy issues. Her answer about dealing with Russian President Vladimir Putin (“Having met Vladimir Putin, I wouldn’t talk to him at all. We’ve talked way too much to him.”) was substantive and a marked contrast to Trump’s assertion that he would “talk” to Putin and “get along” with him and that would just magically solve all the problems.

Marco Rubio might be one of the most naturally talented public speakers alive today on the right, and that showed tonight. Like Fiorina, the contrast with Rubio’s detailed and statesmanlike answers and Trump’s braggadocio was substantial – especially when CNN showed them on a split screen, with Trump making petulant faces.