Carly Fiorina scored the sound bite of the evening and staked out a role as a champion of women. Donald Trump found himself on the defensive -- and was un-Trumpily mild in response. Everyone else on the overcrowded stage invoked Ronald Reagan every chance they got.
The second major debate of the Republican presidential campaign didn’t produce a hands-down winner or the kind of fatal gaffe that could knock anyone out of the race. But it may have produced the first, tentative test of a theory that establishment Republicans have long been floating: that over time, Trump’s initial appeal might begin to wear off. For weeks, most other candidates have refrained from challenging the billionaire front-runner head-on -- but on Wednesday, almost all of them piled on.
Fiorina guaranteed herself plenty of post-debate television replays with her crisp answer to a question about Trump’s remark -- “Look at that face” -- that she wasn’t good-looking enough to be president.
“I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said,” Fiorina said.
Trump’s reply -- an attempt, presumably, at chivalry -- sounded like the words of a man who knew he had been bested. “I think she’s got a beautiful face, and I think she’s a beautiful woman,” he said, a little weakly.
But Fiorina wasn’t the only one taking shots at the front-runner.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio criticized Trump for suggesting that he could rely on advisors to compensate for gaps in his knowledge of foreign policy. “You better be able to lead our country on the first day,” he said.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker chimed in, saying: “We don’t need an apprentice in the White House; we have one right now.”
Sen. Rand Paul chided Trump for what he called the “sophomoric quality” of his attacks on other candidates.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said Trump had falsely denied seeking approval to open a casino in Florida, and won a round of applause when he defended his brother, former President George W. Bush, from a Trump critique.
“Your brother’s administration gave us Barack Obama,” Trump said.
“As it relates to my brother,” Bush replied, “there’s one thing I know for sure: He kept us safe.”
Trump, who seemed to be trying to remain on his best behavior, even offered Bush a backhanded compliment. “More energy tonight,” he said. “I like that.”
It’s premature, of course, to suggest that Trump’s meteoric rise in support among Republican voters may be slowing. Earlier predictions of his demise -- after he questioned the heroism of Sen. John McCain, for example, or suggested that Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly had been “bleeding out of her wherever” -- have all proved premature.
But other candidates aren’t giving Donald Trump a free pass anymore, front-runner or not. And that suggests that he’ll be spending more time in the weeks ahead on the defensive, an unfamiliar role that will test his temperament and his staying power.