SIMI VALLEY, Calif. — Republican voters fed up with Washington and anyone with a background in politics have cheered billionaire businessman Donald Trump as the ultimate 2016 outsider, making him the front-runner for the GOP nomination.
But Trump’s lack of experience with public policy was exposed throughout the second GOP presidential debate on Wednesday, a three-hour marathon that delved deep into complicated issues at home and abroad.
It was a night that allowed others to shine, however briefly, as they showed off their command of issues and talked with precision about what they’d do if elected president.
After dominating the first debate a month ago, Trump faced fierce criticism from his Republican rivals from the outset of the debate at the Reagan Presidential Library outside Los Angeles. He disappeared for long stretches and even acknowledged at one point that he has a lot yet to learn about global affairs.
The former reality television star avoided any major gaffes, yet delivered an underwhelming performance by the conventional standards of presidential politics. “He had his tail between his legs tonight,” said Republican strategist Kevin Madden.
It may be some time before anyone knows if that will have any effect on Trump’s place in the field — his supporters have so far embraced his decidedly unconventional approach to presidential politics.
Another outsider, former technology executive Carly Fiorina, may have helped herself the most Wednesday night. Seizing her debut moment on the main debate stage, she attacked Trump as “an entertainer,” offered a passionate case against Planned Parenthood and spoke in specifics when talking about foreign affairs.
She delivered one of the debate’s most memorable moments when responding to a derogatory comment Trump made in a recent interview about her looks. Fiorina said simply, “I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said,” winning the first ovation of the night from the live audience.
Trump responded, “I think she’s got a beautiful face, and I think she’s a beautiful woman” — a line that won few cheers, if any at all.
The third Republican outsider, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, maintained a positive outlook throughout the night in keeping with his image as the GOP’s most likable candidate. Having surged in recent polls, he earned far more air time during the crowded debate than he did in the first event last month, but when given the opportunity, he offered few specifics on major issues such as immigration and national security.
“Real leadership is what I would hopefully bring to America,” Carson said in a tentative closing statement.
Wednesday’s focus on substance played to the strengths of a handful of candidates, among them former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.
“You should ask him questions in detail about the foreign policy issues our president will confront, because you had better be able to lead our country on the first day,” Rubio charged when asked about Trump’s recent struggle to answer questions about world leaders.
“I will know more about the problems of this world by the time I sit (in the White House,)” Trump said, noting that he didn’t know as much about international affairs because he doesn’t have the experience that Rubio does as a member of the Senate.
Christie, mired at the bottom of the preference polls used to select which candidates get to take part in the GOP’s debates, made waves by making the case to Trump and Fiorina alike that voters don’t much care about their resumes.
“While I’m as entertained as anyone by this personal back-and-forth about the history of Donald and Carly’s career,” he said, “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 gotta tell you the truth — they could care less about your careers.”
Bush flashed a clear knowledge of the issues — and his lack of smoothness as a speaker. But confronted with what some consider to be his greatest political liability, his last name, the son of one president and brother of another scored points with the crowd after Trump said, “Your brother’s administration gave us Barack Obama.”
Clearly prepared for the attack, Bush shot back, “As it relates to my brother, there’s one thing I know for sure: He kept us safe,” Bush said as the crowd erupted in applause.
The exchange was just one example in which Trump, usually a master in the spotlight, failed to score a clear victory. Such home-run moments were rare on Wednesday, especially for the candidate most in need of a strong performance: Scott Walker.
The Wisconsin governor was asked few questions by the debate’s moderators and faded after an early effort to inject himself into the scrum going after Trump in the debate’s first hour.
There remain more than four months before the first of those states, Iowa, will begin voting, and there several more debates to come. Time enough for the GOP’s outsiders to continue making their case, including Trump, who didn’t seem to mind when called out as a mere “entertainer” Wednesday night.
“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,” Trump said.
Steve Peoples covers the Republican race for president for The Associated Press. Follow him on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/sppeoples