Republicans candidates may have found their way to marginalize Donald Trump. At the second GOP debate Wednesday night, the businessman and reality TV star was center-stage, but didn’t have anywhere near the commanding performance of the first, as several of his rivals drew blood for the first time. Is it the end of Trump? No. But it may be the moment that starts to send his poll numbers back down to earth.
Winners: Carly Fiorina had by all accounts the breakout performance of the night. She fought her way onto the debate stage from the undercard debate last month, shaming CNN and the RNC to change their criteria, and she made the most of it. Her dry response to Trump’s personal attack only emphasized her confident presence on stage. She looked and acted the part of a presidential contender and will certainly be rewarded for it. Marco Rubio proved that his slow-and-steady strategy is setting him up for a breakout moment later this year. At times he appeared absent from the debate, as candidates debated Trump, but he surgically inserted himself into key conversations such as one about speaking Spanish to great effect, and delivered the sharpest foreign policy comments of the field. Jeb Bush needed to prove he wasn’t “low energy” as Donald Trump has proclaimed, and he managed to do that. The mano a mano fight with Trump didn’t always leave Bush the victor, but his strong defense of his wife and brother demonstrated the spark wary donors have been looking for. Chris Christie was standing at the margin of the debate, but by the end of it, it was hard to tell. Forcing his way into policy discussions, Christie was at risk of falling off the top-tier stage before the debate, not so after. The famously brash candidate let his signature quick wit and bravado make only brief, but strategic, appearances as he tried to show off his softer side in an effort to connect with voters
Did no harm: John Kasich had few opportunities to shine, but cast himself effectively as the adult on stage, interjecting to steer the conversation back toward policy and away from personal attacks. He was able to communicate his record and experience to voters, but didn’t have a memorable moment for them to grab on to. Ben Carson‘s shaky debate performance in Cleveland last month only sent his poll numbers rising, as his positive message overshadowed his discomfort on stage. Wednesday night’s performance should be no different. He did little to prove his presidential chops, but by managing to sound different from everyone else on stage, his rise in the polls should hold fast. Ted Cruz maintained his position as the firebrand on stage with his critique of Planned Parenthood funding and the Iran nuclear deal, but appeared to stumble when pressed on his support in the past for Chief Justice John Roberts. Mike Huckabee was absent for long portions of the debate, and when he spoke, delivered the fodder that made him a popular Fox News host. But he accomplished little to build his support, relying instead on the hope that his rivals for the social conservative vote will fall and that their voters will move his way.
Losers: Donald Trump is no longer invincible. Fiorina, Bush, and Christie all found ways to score points off the GOP front-runner, which should be a point of concern to the candidate. While under fire from the entire field, they have found that the way to attack Trump is not to engage on his personal affronts, but in using policy against him. Scott Walker‘s poll numbers have been in free-fall, and despite a few bright moments on stage, his performance may not put an end to it. Walker decided to come out swinging against Trump, but the more nimble former TV star was usually able to brush off his attacks. And Walker was absent for large parts of the debate and is now blaming the network for not asking him questions—not the sign of a confident candidate. Rand Paul has long hoped to break out of his father’s shadow to become more than a libertarian icon. His falling poll numbers and irrelevance for most of the debate Wednesday night proved he still has a lot of work to do. His one well-regarded exchange on marijuana policy only reinforced the way he’s been boxed in in this race.
Here are your must-reads:
The Gospel of Bernie
Sanders brings fire back to the Democratic Party, TIME’s Sam Frizell writes in this week’s magazine
What You Missed While Not Watching the CNN Republican Debate
TIME’s Michael Scherer with the minute-by-minute guide’
Carly Fiorina Takes the Debate Stage Swinging
She fought her way onto the main stage, and didn’t let up [TIME]
How Lindsey Graham Dominated the Undercard Debate
Pragmatism and humor steal the show among the four candidates at the bottom of the polls [TIME]
Pope Francis and the New Roman Empire
TIME’s Elizabeth Dias on the pope’s activist agenda as he prepares to visit the U.S. [TIME]
“That’s what negative campaigning is about.” —Bernie Sanders to TIME, brushing off criticism from pro-Hillary Clinton super PACs
“I think women across this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said.” — Carly Fiorina dryly responding to Donald Trump’s criticism of her appearance
Bits and Bites