For once, it wasn’t the Donald Trump show.
The billionaire businessman’s uneven performance at CNN’s prime-time Republican presidential debate Wednesday gave Carly Fiorina and Jeb Bush openings to seize the spotlight. And they did, putting Trump in the unusual position of being on defense throughout the evening.
Fiorina, who fought her way onto the main stage with a breakout debate performance last month, pointedly confronted the real estate mogul. She was stern when asked about Trump’s recent assessment of her appearance, when he told Rolling Stone: “Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that?”
Fiorina shot back during the debate: “I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said.”
The exchange left Trump in an unusual position: uninterested in hitting back.
“I think she’s got a beautiful face and I think she’s a beautiful woman,” he said.
Minutes later, Trump once again let a moment of potential confrontation slip by – this time in an exchange with Bush.
Asked to respond to Trump’s controversial remarks about Bush’s wife — “If my wife were from Mexico, I think I would have a soft spot for people from Mexico” — Bush gestured to his wife in the audience and asked for an apology.
Trump declined, adding: “No, I won’t do that because I said nothing wrong, but I hear she’s a lovely woman.”
The Republican front-runner was everyone’s favorite target at the debate here at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. It was a notable shift for Trump, who galvanized last month’s debate with his explosive rhetoric and unrelenting onslaught against his rivals.
Wednesday’s debate also crystallized a shifting dynamic in the large GOP field: Trump’s competitors are done tiptoeing around their party’s unorthodox front-runner.
The three-hour debate touched on a wide range of issues, including immigration, national security, tax policy and legalization of marijuana.
Candidates spoke passionately about Planned Parenthood and vowed to defund it as president. The group has been damaged by controversial and highly edited videos of organization officials discussing the sale of aborted fetal parts.
“These Planned Parenthood videos are horrifying,” said Sen. Ted Cruz, as he accused the organization of trying to “sell the body parts of unborn children for profit.”
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie responded: “Let’s ask Hillary Clinton. She believes in the systematic murder of children in the womb.”
Fiorina used even more graphic language.
“Watch these tapes. Watch a fully formed fetus on the table. Its heart beating, its legs kicking while someone says we have to keep it alive to harvest its brain,” she said.
Though Trump didn’t pack as much punch as usual, he still seized some opportunities to attack his opponents. Right out of the gate and without being prompted, he went after Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul.
“Rand Paul shouldn’t even be on this stage, he’s number 11,” Trump said.
That didn’t sit well with Paul, who responded that Trump was “sophomoric” and scolded him for criticizing people’s physical appearance.
Trump responded: “I never attacked him on his looks and believe me there’s plenty of subject matter right there.”
Trump also pounced on Fiorina’s controversial tenure as head of Hewlett-Packard.
Her leadership at the firm “led to the destruction of the company,” Trump said. “She can’t run any of my companies – that I can tell you.”
Bush, meanwhile, was uncharacteristically combative with Trump. Under pressure from his supporters to pick up his game, Bush seemed determined to prove that he could hold his own.
He accused Trump of buying influence: “You got Hillary Clinton to go to your wedding.”
“Excuse me, Jeb, I got along with Clinton, I got along with everybody,” Trump responded. “Excuse me.”
Bush cut in with a curt: “No.”
“More energy tonight – I like that,” joked Trump, who has been criticizing Bush repeatedly for lacking in charisma.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker also took an early shot at Trump.
“We don’t need an apprentice in the White House – we have one right now.”
Meanwhile, at an earlier debate for the GOP field’s lower-ranking candidates, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, former New York Gov. George Pataki, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum brawled over thorny issues such as immigration.
When the conversation turned to the controversial issue of “birthright citizenship,” Graham said there were certain “rich Asians, rich people from the Mideast” that were “bastardizing citizenship.”
Jindal, meanwhile, defended his policy views on immigration, repeatedly asserting that he did not support amnesty.
In another heated exchange, Pataki and Santorum butted heads about a Kentucky county clerk’s refusal to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
The woman, Kim Davis, has reignited a national debate about a Supreme Court ruling earlier this year that legalized same-sex marriage across the country.
Santorum called the Supreme Court ruling “unconstitutional,” and said there is no more important right than the ability for a citizen to freely exercise his or her conscience.
But Pataki said he would have fired Davis for violating the law.
“I didn’t agree with the Supreme Court’s decision but it is the law of the land,” Pataki said.
While the four candidates traded barbs over numerous issues, there were also calls for the GOP to focus on the ultimate prize of taking back the White House.
“If it is Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders (that becomes president), they’re going to pick people we’re going to disagree with all the time,” Graham said in reference to Supreme Court nominations. “Please understand that we have to win this election.”