SIMI VALLEY, Calif. — Donald Trump held center stage at the GOP presidential debate Wednesday night and tried to remain the star of the show, squabbling with opponents and bragging about his best-selling book. He called Jeb Bush a liar and told Rand Paul he didn’t even belong on stage.
But in a marathon three-hour debate on CNN, the other candidates ramped up their criticisms of Trump, shedding some of their fear of his scathing counterpunches, and claiming more of the spotlight in the process.
Carly Fiorina, the only woman on the stage, stood out repeatedly with crisp answers on foreign policy. She took on Trump several times with cool composure that contrasted favorably with his frequent name-calling, while making sure she made him pay for the negative remarks he made in Rolling Stone magazine about her physical appearance.
From the opening minutes, Trump made clear he planned to continue lashing out at enemies with the freewheeling style that has vaulted him to the top of the Republican presidential primary contest.
“I’m Donald Trump. I wrote the ‘Art of the Deal,’ ” he said. “I say not in a braggadocious way, I’ve made billions and billions of dollars.”
“First of all, Rand Paul shouldn’t even be on this stage,” he said a few minutes later.
Paul responded that Trump was sophomoric and his attacks unfair — “his visceral response to attack people on their appearance — short, tall, fat, ugly — my goodness, that happened in junior high. Are we not way above that?”
Trump doubled down on Paul again, giving another reality-TV show shot to the sober debate stage. “I never attacked him on his looks,” Trump said. “And believe me, there is plenty of subject matter right there.”
All the squabbling triggered a reprimand from Governor John Kasich of Ohio, who said the candidates should be talking more about their visions for the country.
“If I were sitting at home and [watching this] back and forth, I would be inclined to turn it off,” he said.
But thoughtful policy debates are not what have pushed Trump into the lead in national and early-state polls. Still, Trump was not as dominant as the debate wore on, going for several stretches without speaking. And he struggled during a crucial exchange with Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard chief executive.
Fiorina declined to directly criticize Trump for his earlier comments in Rolling Stone, in which he said he did not like Fiorina’s face. He later maintained he was referring to her “persona” not her physical appearance.
But Fiorina was not buying that Wednesday, suggesting that his original comment to Rolling Stone was clear: “I think women very clearly heard Mr. Trump,” she said, drawing cheers from the audience.
“She’s got a beautiful face, and she’s a beautiful woman,” Trump then said of Fiorina, a remark that fell flat as she maintained a stern expression.
After the first GOP debate last month, when the rest of the field seemed to be caught off guard by Trump’s forceful tactics, the candidates had little choice Wednesday night but to try to push back on the front-runner. But there was risk in going after him directly, as Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin found when he suggested Trump wasn’t qualified. Trump shot back that Walker was losing money for his state and then noted his rapid fall in the polls.
“I went to number one,” Trump said. “And you went down the tubes.”
Bush needed a breakout performance, and the setting of the debate, the Reagan Presidential Library, provided a tempting backdrop for a sharp assault on Trump’s reputation and record. And Bush came out with more vigor than the last debate, attacking Trump early by accusing him of trying to use campaign donations to win his support for casino gambling in Florida.
“The one guy that had some special interests that I know of that tried to get me to change my views on something — that was generous and gave me money — was Donald Trump,” Bush said. “He wanted casino gambling in Florida.”
“Totally false,” Trump said, before adding, “I promise if I wanted it, I would have gotten it.’’
As Bush began interjecting, Trump, who has criticized Bush for a laid-back style, stopped him with a condescending comment. “Excuse me. One second. More energy tonight, I like that.”
Trump held a fund-raiser for Bush in 1998 and donated $50,000 to the Florida Republican Party, according to a CNN report. But when Bush took office the next year, he opposed the casino gambling expansion that Trump was hoping to use to expand his operations in Florida.
Bush also demanded Trump apologize to his wife, Columba, for saying that Bush was soft on immigration because his wife is from Mexico. Trump declined, but said, “I hear your wife is a lovely woman.”
At one point, the two engaged in a testy back-and-forth over the Iraq war. Bush said of Trump, seeking to raise concerns about Trump’s viability for the White House, “The lack of judgment and lack of understanding about how the world works is really dangerous.”
“Your brother and your brother’s administration gave us Barack Obama,” Trump snapped back.
Bush, whose dynastic candidacy has proved to be a burden in this election, grew more animated than usual.
“As it relates to my brother, there’s one thing I know for sure,” Bush said. “He kept us safe. I don’t know if you remember, Donald. . . . He sent a clear signal that the United States would be strong and fight Islamic terrorism.”
Bush did not note that the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks occurred early in his brother’s presidency. The exchange was quickly promoted by Bush’s campaign as a key moment of the night.
But in one light-hearted moment, when the moderator asked what Secret Service code name they would want if they were president, Bush said “Eveready — very high energy, Donald.”
Trump then held out his hand for a low five, which Bush delivered with vigor.
To laughter, Trump then revealed his choice for code name: “Humble.”
The CNN debate — moderated by CNN’s Jake Tapper and Dana Bash, and conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt — took place on what, for Republicans, is hallowed ground. Reagan’s Air Force One loomed behind the debate stage as the 11 of the Republican hopefuls battled for attention.
Since the first debate last month, Trump has solidified his standing as front-runner. His lead has grown. A New York Times/CBS News poll released Tuesday showed he had support of 27 percent of primary voters, with Ben Carson trailing closely behind at 23 percent. No one else is above 6 percent — including Bush, who is the third member of his family to run for president.
Bush sought in the earlier phases of the campaign to seize the mantle of establishment front-runner. But he seems to have misjudged the mood of the GOP’s primary electorate, which is still fed up with both parties in Washington. As energy has shifted to political newcomers like Trump and Carson, the Bush name has proved to be an even greater liability.
Bush has fallen to seventh place in some polls in Iowa and fifth place in New Hampshire.
The prime-time debate Wednesday followed an earlier one featuring four candidates whose polling numbers were not high enough for them to qualify for the main stage.
The early portion of that debate was dominated by Trump, too, with the candidates trying to outdo one another with criticism of the front-runner.
“God forbid, if he were in the White House, we have no idea what he would do,” said Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana.
“Donald Trump is unfit to be president of the United States,” said George Pataki, the former governor of New York.
Senator Lindsey Graham compared Trump to a cartoon character.
Graham also had a feisty performance, imploring his party to stop fighting battles that are politically unrealistic, and take more bipartisan action on immigration.
“In my world, Hispanics are Americans,” he said.
Jindal, meanwhile, eagerly tried to fire up the grass roots, saying Republicans in Washington had no backbone and little conviction.
Matt Viser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.