Opinion

How Carly Fiorina broke Donald Trump's stranglehold on the GOP — and helped Jeb Bush

The only woman on the debate stage showed the candidates how to disarm The Donald

First Donald Trump suggested Carly Fiorina was ugly. Tonight, reeling, he called her "beautiful."

The merits of her face aside, Fiorina showed force in Wednesday night's Republican debate, disarming the brash New York mogul with a short quip, while driving the conversation with detailed policy answers on Russia and Iran. She also made a powerful appeal to evangelical voters by graphically describing videos produced to criticize Planned Parenthood, laying a marker for congressional Republicans who want to shut down the government before funding the family planning service.

By the end of the debate, other candidates, who had been reluctant to take on Trump, were borrowing from her playbook, using bemusement and concise informative responses to blow off his bluster. It may not have been Fiorina's intention to break Trump's stranglehold over the GOP, but it was hard to conclude, at the end of the debate, that Trump left the stage with as much brio as he brought.

And while Fiorina will doubtless surge in the near term, other established candidates, especially Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, both of whom managed satisfying takedowns of Trump, might benefit more in the long run.

Trump noted that he had opposed the Iraq War and blamed George W. Bush's presidency for inviting Americans to elect his opposite, Barack Obama. "I am a very militaristic person, but you have to know how to use the military," Trump said.

"One thing as regards to my brother? He kept us safe," Jeb Bush responded.

As Trump tried to interrupt, Bush kept on: "You remember the rubble? You remember the firefighter?"

The audience gave Bush its loudest applause of the evening. (Of course, it was on George W. Bush's watch that terrorists slipped into the country before Sept. 11, but to the Republican primary electorate, most of whom support his aggressive national security policies, his record after that day matters more, setting aside the Iraq War.)

Jeb Bush grew more comfortable as the night went on. He deftly deflected Rand Paul's attempt to bait him on drug use, admitting to youthful drug experimentation while insisting that treatment and enforcement were preferable to legalizing medical marijuana. He also cleverly apologized to his mother, the former First Lady Barbara Bush, an anti-drug crusader, and later tweeted a further apology.

Though Trump held his own on immigration policy, Rubio managed to upbraid him for suggesting that immigrants must know English to be fully American. Rubio spoke about his grandfather. "My grandfather loved America. He loved Ronald Reagan. My grandfather instilled in me that I was blessed to live in the one society in all of human history where even I, the son of a bartender and a maid, could aspire to have anything and be anything... But he taught me that in Spanish; the language he was most comfortable in was Spanish... And if people get their news in Spanish, I want them to hear that directly from me."

Fiorina made her mettle in the race by taking on Hillary Clinton. She challenged Democrats to name any of her accomplishments, questioned her judgment on her use of a private e-mail server, and called her untrustworthy. She drew attention, but attracted little support and even less money, failing to qualify for the main stage during the first presidential debate.

She came ready tonight with detailed policy prescriptions. Her first big moment came when she was asked what she would say to Russian President Vladimir Putin to secure his cooperation over the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine. Trump was her foil. He had said he would negotiate with Putin.

She repeated a line she's used on the trail. "Having met Vladimir Putin, I wouldn't talk to him," she said. "We've talked way too much to him. What I would do immediately is begin rebuilding the Sixth Fleet," the Naval forces responsible for helping NATO patrol Russia. She would rebuild missile defense and conduct aggressive military exercises in the Baltics, too, to send a message to Putin to back down.

Later, as CNN cued up its first commercials of the evening, Fiorina was given the opportunity by Tapper to respond to Trump's critical appraisal of her looks. Fiorina smiled thinly, looked at Tapper, and said: "I think women all across the country heard what Mr. Trump said."

Trump grimaced. His instinctive response was to fawn, calling her "beautiful." During the break, he huddled with his daughter, Ivanka, according to tweets from the debate hall.

Trump's brash New York style worked well in previous debates, when his unconventional approach seemed appealing to an electorate that was angry with their party. Tonight it undercut his appeal, as others raised their game and refused to let themselves be rattled. His answers, smooshed into sound-bites fit for the debate's time constraints, felt rushed and often sounded contradictory. His body language was off, too. He leaned heavily over his lectern, looking small next to Bush.

Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey, tried to fly above Trump and Fiorina, who spent five minutes sparring about their business credentials.

"To the 55-year-old construction worker who doesn't have a job, they couldn't care less about your careers," he said. When Fiorina tried to get a word in, Christie cut her off. "Carly, listen, you can interrupt everyone else on the stage, but you can't interrupt me."

Christie and Rand Paul later faced off on medical marijuana and terrorism policies, highlighting a cleft in the party. Younger voters overwhelmingly support legalizing pot, and a majority of voters support criminal justice reform.

But Fiorina, once again, had the most compelling answer:

"My husband Frank and I buried a child due to drug addiction... We are misleading people when we tell them that marijuana is just like having a beer. The marijuana that people are smoking is not like the marijuana Jeb Bush smoked 40 years ago — sorry Barbara," she said.

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