All summer long — including in last month's first presidential debate — Donald Trump has floated above the rest of the Republican presidential field, like a malevolent puppeteer pulling everyone else's strings. On Wednesday night, in an often bludgeoning debate at the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, the New Yorker was forced earthward by a blast of criticism from most of the rest of the field.
It would be foolhardy to suggest the event will sharply alter a campaign that Trump has led for many weeks — a lead that has held steady despite, and even because of, his incendiary, insult-spraying approach. But it may signal a more evenhanded brawling from this point forward, as the candidates move into a fall that will be crucial to the survival of many of their campaigns.
It was evident that Trump was more battered than last time around, but it was less clear who might be the beneficiary. His closest competitor in the polls, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, virtually vanished for much of the debate and declined opportunities to throw punches. (He even halfheartedly praised Trump's doctoring skills after the real estate tycoon supported the widely discredited belief that vaccines can lead to autism.)
With millions watching on CNN, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush scored some points, as did other establishment candidates like Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Rand Paul of Kentucky. But they continue to battle the leanings of party voters who seem intent on punishing establishment candidates and dreaming of outsiders, a reality that left the veteran politicians somewhat defensive as they tallied their attributes.
The biggest potential beneficiary of the three-hour debate may be former Hewlett Packard Chief Executive Carly Fiorina, who had scratched her way onto the stage after a positive performance in August's junior varsity competition.
Fiorina began Wednesday a distant third among outsiders, behind Trump and Carson and without their financial resources. But as the debate wore on, she stung Trump on his business record, his understanding of the Constitution and his rough treatment of women, including her.
She archly referred to Trump as a "wonderful entertainer" whose character would be illuminated in the campaign. And she offered a pointedly cool reply when asked her response to Trump's recent criticism of her face, which he had mocked as unworthy of a president.
"I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said," Fiorina said, prompting an outbreak of applause from the audience.
"I think she's got a beautiful face, and I think she's a beautiful woman," replied Trump, with something approaching contrition. As he looked to Fiorina, she did not smile.
Trump broke open the August debate, the first in a series that will run through next spring, in its first moments by declining to pledge to support the party nominee if one of his rivals prevailed. And the tone for this one was set early as well. After Trump slighted Paul as someone who "shouldn't even be on this stage," the senator responded in kind.
"Do we want someone with that kind of character, with that kind of careless language, to be negotiating with Putin?" he said, referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin. "Do we want someone like that to be negotiating with Iran? I think really there's a sophomoric quality that is entertaining about Mr. Trump, but I am worried. I'm very concerned about him — having him in charge of the nuclear weapons."
A short time later, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker piled on, comparing Trump to President Obama, the party's arch-nemesis: "We don't need an apprentice in the White House. We have one right now. He told us all the things we wanted to hear back in 2008. We don't know who you are or where you're going. We need someone who can actually get the job done."
Bush's camp had said before the debate that the son and brother of past presidents would come out swinging in this one after a laconic performance last time. That was truer toward the end of the debate than the beginning. Bush and Trump clashed most sharply on the subject of immigration, when Trump refused Bush's demand that he apologize for suggesting that Bush's Mexican-born wife had softened his views on those in the country illegally.
"She is absolutely the love of my life, and she's right here, and why don't you apologize to her right now," Bush said.
"No, I won't do that, because I've said nothing wrong," Trump replied.
But minutes later, Bush needed help after he delivered a bland response when asked about Trump's past criticism of him for speaking Spanish during a campaign event. It was left to Rubio to offer an emotional remembrance of the Spanish that his grandfather spoke when he "instilled in me the belief that I was blessed to live in the one society in all of human history where even I, the son of a bartender and a maid, could aspire to have anything and be anything that I was willing to work hard to achieve."
Fiorina was a far more consistent participant, relentlessly disciplined and detailed. She frequently offered lists of plans, for example, for facing down a bellicose Russia or terrorists in the Middle East. She delivered an emotional denunciation of Planned Parenthood, saying "shame on us" if the organization is not stripped of federal money. She even discussed — to no evident reaction by her male counterparts — the drug-related death of her stepdaughter, a subject she did not talk about during her unsuccessful 2010 run for the U.S. Senate in California.
Sustained assaults were difficult to achieve during a debate that featured 11 contestants — four others appeared in an earlier debate — and Fiorina unintentionally offered a coda of sorts to the troubles many of the candidates had.
"And then it will be my turn?" she asked moderator Jake Tapper, as several candidates talked over her.
But in the end, it was her turn, and in quite another way, Donald Trump's.