Billionaire businessman Donald Trump entered Wednesday night’s second major GOP presidential debate of the season like a conquering hero, boasting about his strong showing in the polls, warning U.S. foes that they will face a day of reckoning with him in the White House and dismissing many of his political rivals.
With Trump and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson currently at the top of the GOP heap, voters seem far more enamored with “outsiders” with little or no practical political or government experience than more traditional candidates like former Florida governor Jeb Bush, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky.
The biggest question heading into the evening was whether the more traditional rivals would find a way to distance themselves from politics as usual to curry favor with disenchanted GOP voters, or whether they would finally overcome their fear of Trump and directly challenge him on his fiery temperament and dubious credentials to run the country and the U.S. military.
It took only a few minutes before Trump’s rivals resolved the dilemma: They engaged in full blown political mud wrestling to bring the high flying Trump down a notch or two, questioning his temperament and credentials to run the country.
Paul declared he would lose sleep knowing Trump had his finger on the nuclear button. Walker said that many people have no idea of whether Trump is actually up to the job. “We don’t need another apprentice in the White House, we have one right now.” Without saying specifically that Trump is unqualified to be president, Rubio said, “You better be able to lead our country on the first day – not six months from now, not a year from now – on the first day in office our president could very well confront a national security crisis.”
Trump fired back repeatedly – giving as good as he got – but clearly on the defensive for the first time. Whether he was hurt or helped by the assault from these professional politicians remains to be seen.
“I am not sitting in the United States Senate,” Trump said. “I’m a businessman. I am doing business transactions... I will know more about the problems of this world by the time I sit. And you look at what’s going on in this world right now by people who supposedly know. This world is a mess.”
A new Washington Post-ABC News poll this week found that Trump and Carson dominated the field specifically because they are not professional politicians and seem more genuine than the raft of other professional politicians. Indeed, more than seven in 10 Americans said people in politics can’t be trusted. More than 60 percent said the political system was dysfunctional and needs to be overhauled.
More to the point, two thirds of the Republicans who said they would prefer experience outside of government currently support either Trump or Carson. Regardless of whether the respondents feel they could vote for him, 64 percent of all the Republicans interviewed said they think Trump is qualified to serve as president, while 35 percent say he isn’t. Among all voters, Republicans and Democrats, only 37 percent say Trump is qualified to be president.
Last night’s three-hour debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif., saw Trump at the center of the 11 candidates and Bush and Carson to his left and right. While many grabbed attention from time to time, Bush emerged as one of the strongest and most energetic debaters of the night, forcing even Trump to concede that the former governor was showing more “energy” than he has in the past.
Bush spent much of the night trying to lay a glove on Trump, initially highlighting Trump’s past as a Democrat, and charged the billionaire once pressed him to make casino gambling legal in Florida when he was governor, a claim Trump refuted.
Bush later asked Trump to apologize for saying he has a “soft spot” for Mexicans because his wife, Columba, is Mexican-America.
Trump swatted the charge away, saying he did “nothing” wrong.
Bush succeeded during a heated exchange in which Trump said Bush’s brother, former President George W. Bush, was to blame for the election of Barack Obama.
“Because it was such a disaster, the last three months, that Abraham Lincoln couldn’t have been elected,” Trump claimed. Bush’s fired back, "As it relates to my brother, there's one thing I know for sure - he kept us safe. I don’t know if you remember.”
By contrast, the soft-spoken Carson was barely a presence on the stage for much of the debate. He appeared visibly uncomfortable when moderators tried to get him to respond to attacks made by his fellow contenders, or likewise go after them.
Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard CEO who pushed her way into the second prime time debate on CNN after a sterling performance in the first “undercard” debate of lesser presidential candidates August 6, frequently spoke forcefully on the issues and urged the moderators to let her weigh in.
“I’ll tell you why people are supporting outsiders — you know what happens when someone has been in a system their whole life?” she asked at the top of the night. “They don’t know how broken the system is."
"A fish swims in water; it doesn’t know its water. It’s not that politicians are bad people, they’ve been in that system forever,” she added.
Fiorina engaged several of her rivals, but the most memorable exchange came when she was asked to respond to a critique Trump made about her looks during an interview with Rolling Stone magazine.
"This is the face of a 61-year-old woman. I am proud of every year and every wrinkle," she said, which Fiorina and her allied super-PAC turned into an ad.
"I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said," the 2016 hopeful said to sustained cheers and wild applause.
"I think she's got a beautiful face and I think she's a beautiful woman," Trump chimed in moments later, although Fiorina responded with a stony look.
In many ways, the early minutes of the debate encapsulated much of the tension between Trump and his chief rivals.
In effect, the debate began with a brawl, as many of the challengers attacked Trump as a dangerous novice unfit to lead the country, and the tough talking Trump fought back with searing political and personal critiques.
When one of the moderators, Jake Tapper of CNN, raised Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal’s claim that Trump was a “hothead” and would be dangerous as commander in chief, Carly Fiorina said that Trump is “a wonderful entertainer” and terrific at business.
“I also think that one of the benefits of a presidential campaign is the character and capability and judgement and temperament of every one of us is revealed over time and under pressure,” she said. “All of us will be revealed over time and under pressure. I look forward to a long race.”
When pressed to ask whether she would feel comfortable with Trump having his finger on the button of a nuclear bomb, “she said, “That’s not for me to answer, it’s for the voters of the United States of America to decide.”
Trump immediately lashed back at his critics, especially Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, “who shouldn’t even be on the stage” because he has one percent in the polls.
“As far as temperament, I think I have a great temperament,” Trump said. “I built a phenomenal business with incredible, iconic assets. One of the really true great real estate businesses. I’ve had great success with number one best sellers all over the place, with the Apprentice and everything else I’ve done. But what I will tell you this, what I am far and away greater than an entertainer is a businessman. And that’s the kind of mindset this country needs to bring it back. We owe $19 trillion and you need this kind of thinking to bring our country back. And believe me my temperament is very good, very calm, but we will be respected outside of this country. We are not respected now.”
Paul replied, “I have to laugh” that Trump launched a “sideways attack” against him when someone raised the question about whether Trump would be qualified to oversee nuclear weapons. “I think that really goes to the question of judgement. Do we want someone with that kind of character, that kind of careless language to be negotiating with Iran?”
“I am worried, I am very concerned about having him in charge to nuclear weapons, because I think his response – his visceral response—is attack people on their appearance – short, tall, fat, ugly – my goodness, that happened in junior high."
Trump responded: “I never attacked him on his looks – and believe me, there’s plenty of subject matter right there.”
When pressed again on his credentials as a national leader, Trump said, “I’ve actually been in politics all my life although I have been on that side as opposed to this side. I’ve now been a politician for three months. Obviously, I’m doing pretty well. I’m number one in every poll by a lot. But the qualification is that I have dealt with people all over the world, I’ve been successful all over the world. Everything I’ve done virtually has been a tremendous success.”
He lashed out at former Gov. George Pataki, who criticized him earlier in the evening for his failed casinos in Atlantic City, but who wasn’t on the stage tonight for the main debate. He dismissed Pataki as a “failed governor” who “wouldn’t be elected dog catcher” today.
When former Florida governor Jeb Bush was asked whether he would trust Trump with the nuclear code, Bush replied, “I think the voters will make that determination. But what I know to be true is that the next president of the United States is going to have to have to fix an extraordinarily difficult situation. This administration, with President Obama and Hillary Clinton, has created insecurities the likes of which we never would have imagined. There is not a place in the world where we’re better off today than six and a half years ago…. and that requires a steadiness, that requires an understanding of how the world works,” he said. “You can’t just talk about this stuff and insult leaders around the world, and expect a good result. You have to do this with a steady hand. And I believe I have those skills.”