by Janet Hook, Patrick O’Connor and Rebecca Ballhausm, WSJ
The second Republican presidential debate Wednesday turned into a rhetorical brawl in which Donald Trump’s rivals channeled his confrontational style while seeking to cast him as unprepared for the job.
In more than three hours of give-and-take, former Hewlett-Packard head Carly Fiorina displayed a flair for sharp responses. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio showcased his foreign policy knowledge. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush got credit from Mr. Trump for having “more energy.” The array of 10 other candidates on the stage managed to collectively dim the spotlight that has shone so brightly on Mr. Trump, the Republican front-runner.
“We don’t need an apprentice in the White House,” Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker said, referring to Mr. Trump’s former reality television show. “We already have one.’
Mr. Trump, too, was loaded for bear, defending himself and attacking his rivals. “My temperament is very good, very calm,” he said in response to a question about his ability to handle the rigors of the job.
In one of the most-anticipated confrontations of the debate, Ms. Fiorina was asked to address remarks published last week in which Mr. Trump criticized her face. The billionaire claimed he’d been misunderstood, but she responded, “I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said,” to thunderous applause.
The CNN debate was held at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Library. The moderators asked questions that triggered confrontations between the candidates, who interrupted and talked over each other in a bid to grab attention on the crowded stage.
The candidates faced more questions about foreign affairs than during the first debate—a policy area that has been seen as a weak point for candidates such as Mr. Trump, Ms. Fiorina and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson who have no previous government experience.
Mr. Rubio made his case for a robust U.S. involvement in the world. Although he had shied from confrontation with other candidates, he took Mr. Trump to task for not knowing, in a recent interview, the name of Iranian special forces. “You better be able to lead our country on the first day,” he said.
The GOP candidates debated the merits of the 2003 invasion of Iraq and whether the country should pursue similar strategies in the future. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, recalling the horror of the Sept. 11 attacks, forcefully defended the invasion and the need to prosecute suspected terrorists. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul re-staked his claim as the noninterventionist in the field and Mr. Carson argued for more restraint on the world stage.
“There will always be a Bush or Clinton for you if you want to go back to war in Iraq,” said Mr. Paul.
Discussion of the Iraq war prompted one of the sharpest exchanges of the night, when Mr. Trump responded to attacks by Mr. Bush by tearing into his brother, former President George W. Bush, saying, “Your brother’s administration gave us Barack Obama.”
Mr. Bush—who moments earlier had sought to distance himself from his brother, saying, “I’m my own man”—defended the former president. “He kept us safe,” he said, to a loud round of applause.
“I don’t know. You feel safe right now?” Mr. Trump shot back. “I don’t feel so safe.” Mr. Walker, from across the stage, interrupted on Mr. Bush’s behalf, blaming the current state of national security on Mr. Obama’s leadership.
All of the candidates objected to an agreement with Iran that aims to prevent it from getting a nuclear bomb in exchange for eased sanctions. “The president treats [the Iran nuclear deal] like the Magna Carta, but Iranians treat it like it’s toilet paper,” said former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.
Before the main event, CNN hosted a separate debate among the four lowest-ranking candidates—Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, former New York Gov. George Pataki and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal. They too threw criticisms at Mr. Trump, but some launched a plea to focus more on substantive issues like foreign affairs.
In the earlier debate Mr. Graham tried to steer the discussion from Trump-bashing to foreign policy. “Syria is hell on earth and it’s not going to get fixed by insulting each other,” Mr. Graham said. He called for sending more U.S. troops to Syria and Iraq to combat Islamic State, and said of his rivals, “If you’re not ready to do these things, you’re not ready to be commander in chief.”
In the prime-time debate, Ohio Gov. John Kasich made a similar plea, imploring moderators to make the discussion more substantive, rather than focused on personal attacks. “If I were sitting at home and watching this back and forth, I would be inclined to turn it off,” he said.
Many of his rivals have been hoping that Mr. Trump’s brash, insulting style will wear thin with voters. But he didn’t shy away from it and attacked candidates across the stage. He made a quip about Mr. Paul’s appearance and accused Ms. Fiorina of turning Hewlett-Packard into a “disaster.”
But his most relentless needling was reserved for Mr. Bush, who had long been considered the party’s front-runner until Mr. Trump surged. The two locked horns in an early scuffle over fundraising and Mr. Trump’s past support for Democratic candidates, including former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Mr. Trump, citing the donations Mr. Bush has collected between his campaign and his outside super PAC, said he wouldn’t be beholden to wealthy supporters because he is swearing off outside campaign contributions. And for good measure, Mr. Trump said he would have doubled or tripled Mr. Bush’s donations, if he had decided to raise outside money.
“Nobody has control of me, other than the people of the country,” Mr. Trump said. When Mr. Bush early on showed real fire, interrupting Mr. Trump to argue with him, Mr. Trump quipped, “More energy tonight! I like that!”
Late in the debate, when asked what Secret Service codename he would choose if elected, Mr. Bush said: “Ever-Ready.” Turning toward Mr. Trump, he added: “It’s high-energy, Donald.” The two high-fived. But earlier, when the moderator asked about comments Mr. Trump made suggesting that Mr. Bush’s immigration policies were a result of his marriage to a Mexican immigrant, Mr. Bush bridled and asked Mr. Trump to apologize to his wife Columba who was in the audience. He refused, saying “I won’t do that, because I’ve said nothing wrong.”
Mr. Trump, who had previously criticized Mr. Bush for speaking Spanish on the campaign trail, reiterated his call for immigrants coming to the U.S. to learn English. “This is a country where we speak English, not Spanish,” he said.
Mr. Bush retorted that he had been “speaking English here tonight.” But, he added, “If a high school kid asks me a question in Spanish…I’m going to show respect and answer that question in Spanish.” As the moderators pivoted to another question, Mr. Trump interjected that Mr. Bush had been addressing a reporter, not a student, in Spanish in the incident he had criticized.
Candidates were also at odds on whether to force a shutdown of the government over efforts to cut off funding for Planned Parenthood. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who was a leader of the health-law funding fight that resulted in a 2013 partial government shutdown, said he would do it again—even though many Republicans viewed the 2013 fight as a political loser for their party. The candidates criticized the videos depicting officials at the organization discussing the use of fetal tissue obtained after abortions, but Mr. Kasich said closing the government would be a fruitless effort.
“The American people are going to shake their heads and say, ‘What’s the story with these Republicans?’ ” He said he was “sympathetic” to the cause of eliminating the group’s funding but that a government shutdown wouldn’t “work out.” Mr. Cruz defended himself: “We need to stop surrendering and start standing for our principles.” He found an ally in Ms. Fiorina, who said the Planned Parenthood debate was over the “character of this nation.” She added: “If we will not stand up and force President Obama to veto this bill, shame on us.”