Story highlights

Big winners for the night include: Carly Fiorina, Marco Rubio and Chris Christie

Less clear is how Wednesday's performance will affect the campaigns of Jeb Bush and Ben Carson

Washington CNN  — 

The day after a marathon three-hour meeting of 11 top tier candidates, here’s our take on the winners and losers of CNN’s Republican debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.


Carly Fiorina

Fiorina insisted in the lead-up to the GOP debate that she belonged on the debate stage with the top-tier White House hopefuls.

She proved as much Wednesday night.

For the second debate in a row, Fiorina was once again the breakout star of the night, taking on Republican front-runner Donald Trump with finesse and capturing the crowd with polished, zinging answers and an impassioned charge against abortion.

Fiorina earned perhaps the biggest applause of the night as she skewered Planned Parenthood.

“This is about the character of our nation and if we will not stand up and force President Obama to veto this bill, shame on us,” Fiorina said to raucous applause in what was her biggest moment of the night, one that will appeal to the socially conservative base of the party.

Fiorina dodged an early opportunity to hit Trump but didn’t make that mistake again when she was asked to address the businessman’s recent comments about her appearance to Rolling Stone, in which he suggested her face would make her unelectable.

“I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said,” she said, once again to overwhelming applause.

Fiorina takes on Trump

New York journalist and CNN contributor Errol Louis said after the debate that Fiorina was “the clearest winner.”

“(She) successfully challenged Trump – criticizing his wisecracks about her personal appearance and challenging his credentials as a global businessman by deftly ticking off hotspots around the world and suggesting ways she would tackle them,” he wrote in a CNN op-ed.

Fiorina distinguishes herself on debate stage

Marco Rubio

Rubio proved Wednesday night why so many GOP elites have long considered him a top contender for the Republican nomination: He can weave his strong handle of policy with a compelling personal narrative.

Rubio took on Trump differently than Fiorina or Bush, dispatching the front-runner without attacking him directly, instead steering the debate toward his strengths.

When Trump pointed out Rubio’s voting absences in the Senate, Rubio refused to retort with an attack of his own.

“You’re right, I have missed some votes, and I’ll tell you why, Mr. Trump. Because in my years in the Senate, I’ve figured out very quickly that the political establishment in Washington, D.C. in both political parties is completely out of touch with the lives of our people,” Rubio said. “That’s why I’m missing votes. Because I am leaving the Senate, I’m not running for re-election, and I’m running for president because I know this: unless we have the right president, we cannot make America fulfill its potential, but with the right person in office, the 21st century can be the greatest era that our nation has ever known.”

Most awkward moments of the debate

Jeb Bush

Bush stood out with several key moments during the debate that reassured his supporters after recently dipping in the polls and grappling with how to handle Trump’s staying power in the race.

Bush appeared to come out of the shell of the tortoise he has so heartily embraced as his symbol to give voters a taste of the passion he has struggled to showcase.

“You know what? As it relates to my brother, there’s one thing I know for sure. He kept us safe,” Bush told Trump to one of his strongest applause moments of the night. “You remember the fire fighter with his arms around it? He sent a clear signal that the United States would be strong and fight Islamic terrorism, and he did keep us safe.”

And he also successfully tackled Trump over the billionaire’s suggestion that Bush’s Mexican-American wife was the reason for his support for comprehensive immigration reform.

“To subject my wife into the middle of a raucous political conversation was completely inappropriate, and I hope you apologize for that, Donald,” Bush said. “Why don’t you apologize to her right now.” Trump declined.

With expectations low, Bush’s several stand-out moments and overall improvement over his performance in the first debate sealed his spot as one of the night’s winners.

CNN political commentator Amanda Carpenter said Bush’s references to his family were immediately beneficial for him.

“I think the most interesting subtext with Jeb Bush in this debate is his newfound willingness to defend his family,” said the former Ted Cruz aide. “His best moment of the debate I think is when he came out and reminded everyone that his brother kept America safe. On the same hand, I think that will haunt him in the long term because I think tying himself to his brother’s legacy is bad in the long run.”

On Thursday morning, Carpenter said the former Florida governor should have been more forceful in demanding an apology from Trump for comments that real estate developer had made about Bush’s wife in the past.

“He could have been stronger and I think a lot of women were thinking that,” she said on CNN.

Candidates pick their Secret Service code names

Chris Christie

While Bush and Fiorina milked their standout moments from their tiffs with Trump, the New Jersey governor snagged his by using a key moment to make his opponents look narcissistic and portrayed himself the adult in the room.

“While I’m as entertained as anyone by this personal back-and-forth about the history of Donald and Carly’s career, for the 55-year-old construction worker out in that audience tonight who doesn’t have a job, who can’t fund his child’s education, I’ve got to tell you the truth. They could care less about your careers, they care about theirs,” Christie said. “Let’s start talking about that on this stage and stop playing – and stop playing the games.”

Earlier in the night, Christie suggested the problem with the debate was “we’re fighting with each other up here” over how to approach defunding Planned Parenthood even though “we agree.”

And that’s when Christie – who’s been accused of being too moderate – gave his best performance yet to prove his conservative credentials.

“She (Hillary Clinton) believes in the systematic murder of children in the womb to preserve their body parts…in the way that maximizes their value for sale for profit,” Christie said.

5 memorable moments from the debate


Donald Trump

Trump faced a barrage of attacks from a field of contenders clearly more prepared, and eager, to take on the brash billionaire. Those who pulled punches in the last debate – like Scott Walker and Jeb Bush – didn’t hesitate to tackle Trump, eager to regain their faltering standings in the polls.

The result was mixed as Trump had both memorable highlights and cringe-worthy lowlights. But as the front-runner trying to hold on to the lead as retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson’s numbers grow, it’s difficult to see how Trump wasn’t at least partially wounded by Thursday’s performance.

Trump stumbled in responding to Fiorina’s deft answer to his comments about her face, awkwardly calling her “beautiful” after suggesting her looks would keep Americans from voting for her.

Former Bush aide and CNN political commentator Ana Navarro spoke highly of the move.

“I thought it was brilliant, because he surprised us all with his answer,” she said on CNN. “He shut it down.”

And when Bush attacked him for a “lack of judgment” and “lack of understanding about how the world works,” Trump resorted to an oft-used tactic of tying Bush to his brother’s presidency suggesting that “your brother’s administration gave us Barack Obama because it was such a disaster … that Abraham Lincoln couldn’t have been elected.”

Bush’s quick answer – that his brother kept the country safe – knocked Trump off balance as the crowd roared in approval.

Trump’s stamina tested in GOP debate

However, Trump hit his high notes when he was on the offensive, delivering some of the standard fare that his supporters likely devoured. He said he never attacked Sen. Rand Paul on his looks though “there’s plenty of subject matter right there” – and he took on both Fiorina and Walker’s records with numbers to back his rhetoric.

And as he faced questions over foreign policy and his flubbed response to conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt, who was one of the debate’s questioners, Trump smartly pivoted to Hewitt, insulating himself from further attacks from his rivals.

Trump managed to escape the main question over his knowledge of various terrorist groups and their leaders by pointing out that Hewitt had recently conceded to a misunderstanding between the two when Hewitt spoke of the Quds Forces, which Trump misheard as “Kurds” – leading to crosstalk between the two, not between Trump and a fellow candidate.

Conservative analyst Mercedes Schlapp said Trump was silent for more than 30 minutes of discussion n serious policy issues.

“There was a point when he was speechless,” she said. “You could tell he was so uncomfortable talking about any of the issues except for immigration.”

Odds of Trump nomination drop after debate

John Kasich

There wasn’t much daylight between the Ohio governor’s first and second debate performances.

But Kasich’s second performance lacked the umpf that defined his first appearance on the debate stage when he barely squeaked into the top-tier and impressed political observers just weeks after launching his candidacy.

Fact-checking the candidates


Rand Paul

Paul continued to throw things at the wall on Wednesday – still nothing appeared to stick.

The libertarian-leaning senator from Kentucky once again went for Trump’s jugular. When he was asked whether he would trust Trump with the nuclear codes, Paul gave a firm answer: absolutely not.

But with each attack, Paul failed to do what candidates must do to break out in a debate: Pivot to his own strengths. Instead he simply pointed out Trump’s weaknesses.

Paul’s strongest moments came when he defended his libertarian point of view on foreign military interventions and drug and criminal justice reform. But while those audiences likely played well to his libertarian base of support, Paul appeared the odd one out as he discussed foreign policy amid a field of foreign policy hawks.

Scott Walker

Walker came out swinging at the start of the debate, clearly eager to take on the front-runner after dipping in the polls in recent weeks off a strategy that largely avoided confronting Trump.

“We don’t need an apprentice in the White House. We have one there right now,” Walker said of Trump in what was clearly a prepared zinger – one that drew an approving nod from Bush.

Walker then took on Trump’s attacks about his tenure as governor and then defended his opposition to the minimum wage, but soon faded from the stage.

He delivered his responses with more zeal in a performance that topped his first debate night, but didn’t come away from the night with any breakout moments that may prove necessary as Walker looks to regain his footing in the race.

Graphic: Who attacked whom at the debate?

Ben Carson

The second Republican debate was all Carson’s for the taking: the retired neurosurgeon’s appearance comes off a recent surge that has rocketed him to the No. 2 spot in the race.

But instead, Carson played it safe, clinging to his calm and measured demeanor, avoiding the food fights unfolding alongside him and injecting his trademark good humor into his responses.

It wasn’t for a lack of opportunities: Carson got several openings to knock Trump, but refused, even when Trump put forward some sketchy scientific backing for his views on vaccines.

A few zingers could have delivered the bump Carson needs to overtake Trump in at least one of the early states where he has been slowly catching up to the billionaire front-runner.

But Carson may get there anyway: his unorthodox appeal on Wednesday shied away from the spotlight-charging moments that often define presidential debates – not unlike his first debate performance.

Mike Huckabee & Ted Cruz

While both delivered solid responses to the questions they received, neither former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee nor Texas Sen. Ted Cruz seized opportunities to stand out on the crowded 11-candidate stage.

They didn’t want to take on Trump and both revealed an unwillingness to engage their fellow candidates on key policy issues.

The result? They faded into the background.

Candidates repeatedly attempted to distance themselves from the Beltway and paint themselves as anti-establishment, said former Obama aide David Axelrod.

“So Washington was a big loser in this debate for sure,” said Axelrod, a CNN senior political commentator.

6 takeaways from the debate

CNN’s Eugene Scott contributed to this report