It’s no surprise that Donald Trump was at the center of Wednesday’s GOP Presidential Debate — as the target of attacks and as the one slinging the barbs.
The coverage of the matchup on CNN also illuminated some differences between the candidates when it comes to how to deal with illegal immigration, on the strategy for defunding Planned Parenthood and subtle disagreements on what to do about the Iran deal, the latter of which has become a favorite punching bag of the campaign.
But perhaps to a great degree, the audience was driven by a desire to be entertained, for the memorable moments that will be played and replayed in the days ahead. In that regard, the candidates didn’t disappoint in an acrimonious debate.
Here are six moments that will be remembered:
Carly Fiorina Vs. Donald Trump: Gaining entree to the main event, Carly Fiorina again stood out, delivering direct, succinct answers and, when it came to the frontrunner, staying classy. She did what other candidates have been unable to do: Get Trump to back down, and at least tacitly acknowledge that a past remark had been boorish. That was the case with a Rolling Stone article in which he was quoted as making fun of her face. Asked about it, Fiorina simply said, “I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Donald Trump said.” In response, Trump said, “I think she’s got a beautiful face and she’s a beautiful woman.” She was less effective as she tried to defend her troubled tenure at Hewlett Packard. “When you challenge the status quo, you make enemies,” she said. Trump didn’t give in on that point, saying, “She can’t run any of my companies, that I can tell you.”
Fiorina on Planned Parenthood: She drew some of the biggest applause of the evening when she talked about the controversy surrounding Planned Parenthood. After pledging to place her first call as president to Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, she somehow pivoted into a signature issue among conservatives on the trail: federal funding for Planned Parenthood. “Watch a fully-formed fetus on the table, its heart beating, its legs kicking. This is about the character of our nation,” she said. None of the candidates were asked about the controversial edits to the Planned Parenthood videos — something that has drawn a significant pushback — but she framed the issue better than candidates like Ted Cruz and Mike Huckabee did.
Jeb Bush Says He Smoked Marijuana: When Bush admitted to smoking marijuana 40 years ago, it showed just how much has changed when it comes to the question of legalizing some drugs. A generation ago, Bill Clinton claimed, “I didn’t inhale.” Now a major presidential candidate makes a personal admission of drug use during a major debate in front of millions with little worry that it’ll be held against him. It’s still a whole other question among a Republican lineup as to whether they favor marijuana legalization, Rand Paul notwithstanding. Fiorina added a new dimension to the answers when she, too, offered a personal experience. “My husband Frank and I buried a child because of drug addiction. We must put more money into drug treatment.”
Donald Trump vs. Jeb Bush on immigration: Trump started off the night with an amusing exchange with Rand Paul, fulfilling expectations and proving what other candidates said about him: He’s an entertainer. But when it came to a more substantive exchange, what stood out was sparring over Trump’s pledge to build a fence along the U.S.-Mexican border and attacks on illegal immigration in general. Bush asked Trump for an apology for comments made about his wife, and Trump refused. “I hear she’s a lovely woman,” Trump said. Bush said that Trump’s policies “would tear families apart,” while Trump defended his criticisms of Bush for speaking Spanish on the campaign trail. “We have a country where to assimilate, you have to speak English.” The back and forth highlighted a significant policy difference that stands to define the future of the party. Bush may be “low-energy,” as Trump has called him, but the former Florida governor was more engaged and direct in this encounter, although his defense of his brother’s tenure that he “kept us safe” may just trigger more debate about the decision to invade Iraq.
Lindsey Graham makes the most of the “kids’ table”: Running at or just above 0% in the polls, the South Carolina senator drew laughs for some witty responses and, in one instance, an eye roll reaction to Bobby Jindal, one of the three other candidates relegated to the earlier “kids’ table” debate. Graham at one point seemed determined to ask other candidates questions — like if they would commit to re-invading Iraq. He also defended efforts to find a compromise on an immigration bill, saying, “In my mind, Hispanics are Americans.” Graham’s moments of levity (“By the end of this debate it will be the most time I have spent in any library”) were matched by his frequent reminders of of the threat of radical Islam.
Trump being Trump: His opening attack at Rand Paul was a “non sequitur,” as Paul said. He didn’t deliver much in the way of specifics, even when pressed by Hugh Hewitt on who he would consult for foreign policy advice. And his own business experience was targeted by rivals, along with the idea that he wasn’t a true Republican. What’s more, at one point Fiorina was drawing more social media attention, according to Zignal Labs. You could make a case that this wasn’t the best of evenings for Trump, but as we have seen, it doesn’t seem to matter. He’ll probably continue to be the only candidate who can still get away with lines like this: “I say not in a braggadocious way, I’ve made billions and billions of dollars dealing with people all over the world.”
Update: Perhaps no other remark from the debate has gotten more pushback than Fiorina’s claim of what she saw in Planned Parenthood videos. Politifact has deemed that claim “mostly false.”