What did the nation learn about the Republican candidates on Wednesday night?
First, viewers learned that the presidential contenders are delighted to take swipes at each other all night, if given the opportunity.
Second, they learned that the performance that elevated Carly Fiorina from the happy-hour debate in Cleveland to the main stage at the Reagan Library was no fluke—she’s a skilled speaker.
Third, they learned that the listless performance Jeb Bush delivered last time around was no fluke either. The wounded former frontrunner once again seemed unsure how best to handle the crowded stage or the slugfest the debate became.
What they didn’t learn was a great deal about policy. That was a result of a couple, related problems. First, the rules of the debate allowed anyone who was mentioned by a rival to offer a rebuttal. But that often just led to a sideswipe at a third rival, producing a daisy chain of rebuttals, as the topic of conversation drifted farther and farther away from the original question and toward a series of recriminations already familiar from the campaign trail. Second, and relatedly, the moderators allowed themselves to be rolled over by the candidates over and over—the inmates taking over the asylum, perhaps.
When policy did sneak in, the answers were often predictable: As it happens, the Republican candidates hate Planned Parenthood and the Iran deal; don’t think President Obama has an effective foreign policy; and don’t like ISIS.
But there were some notable moments, especially—surprisingly—on the back nine of the nearly three-hour debate.
A surprising and fascinating fight broke out over the lessons of the Iraq War for foreign policy, as Marco Rubio and Chris Christie represented the hawkish wing of the party, squaring off against Rand Paul, Ben Carson, and Donald Trump, who trumpeted their own opposition to the Iraq War and warned against foreign adventurism. One lesson here is that the Republican Party has a real split over the legacy of the Iraq War. As my colleague Matt Ford noted, there’s a real possibility that the Republican nominee in 2016 will have opposed the war, while the likely Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, voted for it.
A second intriguing moment came as the candidates lined up to bash a somewhat surprising goat: the conservative chief justice of the United States, John Roberts. His Court’s rulings to legalize gay marriage and uphold the Affordable Care Act—the latter of which he supported—have made him a target for activists on the right. Ted Cruz tried to tie Jeb Bush to Roberts, who was appointed by George W. Bush; Bush, in one of his best moments of the evening, quickly turned and cornered Cruz, forcing him to admit he had publicly backed Roberts’s nomination.
Things got weird on taxation, too. Several candidates openly argued for regressive taxation systems; Mike Huckabee espoused the Fair Tax, saying, “We ought to get rid of all the taxes on people who produce,” while Carson decried progressive taxation on the wealthy. But Donald Trump—the Republican frontrunner!—delivered a defense of progressive taxation as a matter of fairness that was clearer and more concise than you’ll hear from almost any Democrat these days.
Of course, this nitty-gritty isn’t what many people were looking for from this debate: They were looking for a fight! (That includes moderator Jake Tapper, who promised, and delivered, confrontation.) They got it. Who came out on top?
Fiorina was the clear winner. She came with a store of zingers, notably directed at Trump. “Mr. Trump said he heard clearly what Mr. Bush said. I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said,” she said of his various misogynistic comments. It was perhaps the first moment in the two debates that Trump seemed truly flustered. More importantly, Fiorina repeatedly delivered clear, crisp, bullet-pointed answers to questions about policy—showing up her rivals, who tended to speak in more sweeping generalities. Often, those proposals didn’t add up once you looked at them closely. For example, her “plan” for Iran involved bringing the rest of the world back around to reinstituting a sanctions regime against Tehran, something that most experts reject as unrealistic. No matter: On a stage where no one seemed as sharp, it was enough to impress.
Ben Carson also delivered a strong performance, again using the calm, affable demeanor that’s become one of his great strengths. He was reassuring and friendly in most cases, and offered details—like explaining the kind of fence he saw in Yuma County, Arizona. He remains shaky on foreign policy, however, meandering through a confusing answer about how he would have responded to 9/11.
But what about Trump, the man everyone was watching? One lesson of the campaign so far is that it’s dangerous to judge his performance’s effects. The other candidates didn’t hesitate to take shots at him, but few besides Fiorina landed clean blows. Meanwhile, Trump maintained his typical demeanor. The frontrunner came out of the gate strong—when the first question invited Fiorina to take a shot at Trump, he used his rebuttal to take on not only her but also Rand Paul, seemingly out of nowhere. Mixing it up works well for him. His answers on policy, especially foreign policy, were characteristically vague or incoherent, but when has that hurt him before? More dangerously for Trump, he seemed to fade from view late in the debate. But if what he’s been doing works for him, this debate seems unlikely to radically affect his trajectory.
Bush seemed mostly to be in disbelief at the things Trump was saying as he stood beside him, and maybe at the temerity of the moderators who made him deal with it. (Understandably.) Bush was up and down, but it’s hard to believe that this was the pugnacious fighter his campaign promised to deliver ahead of the debate. Perhaps his most passionate moment came in defense of his brother, former President George W. Bush. But even that was bumpy: He claimed that his brother “kept America safe” from terror, overlooking 9/11, the one important moment at which Bush did not prevent an attack. Jeb Bush also still doesn’t seem to have a good answer to questions about how he differs from his brother and father, nine months into his candidacy. That’s a problem, given the low esteem in which those two administrations are held by both conservative activists and the general population. Raising his voice for what was clearly intended to be a strong finish, Bush flubbed his lines. This just isn’t a format that works well for him.
The rest of the slate are the candidates who stood to benefit the most from a strong debate performance: those who are muddled in the middle of the field, neither failing nor rising, but not especially buzzy. Marco Rubio, whose stock remains high among political pros but whose polling has stagnated, continues to shine on the debate stage, but never completely broke out. Rand Paul delivered a far stronger performance than he did in Cleveland, mixing it up with Bush and others, though it’s not clear that it matters anymore; he may already be dead in the water. Ted Cruz, John Kasich, and Chris Christie also delivered solid performances, but none of them looked like gamechangers. Mike Huckabee rightly complained that he didn’t get many questions, but he didn’t do much with the ones he did field.
The real mystery of the night was Scott Walker. It’s been a rough couple of months for the Wisconsin governor, who was once hailed as a top-tier candidate but has since stumbled and lost his momentum. He’s slipped into single digits in Iowa, which was meant to be his launch pad. Ahead of this debate, Politico even argued that this “might be his last chance.” It’s wise to be wary of such definitive arguments, but Walker did need a strong performance, and he didn’t get it. He often seemed befuddled, didn’t offer many memorable answers, and—perhaps most damningly—seemed to totally vanish from the stage for long periods of time during the debate. Leaving the debate Wednesday, the Walker campaign will have to look for another moment on which to pin its hopes for a turnaround.
11:10 p.m.: Jim Gilmore has fulfilled his promise of live-tweeting the debate he was excluded from. He now has 1,565 followers, having gained about 150 over the course of the evening. —Russell Berman
My pick for a woman on $10 bill - Mary Ludwig Hays - also known as Molly Pitcher - https://t.co/AOxiSlcpAH— James S Gilmore (@gov_gilmore) September 17, 2015
11:06 p.m.: I noted earlier that Jeb Bush was showing his obvious disgust with Donald Trump's presence beside him. The two shared a nice laugh toward the end of the debate, when Jeb said his Secret Service code-name would be "ever ready" and said to Trump it would be "very high energy," in a nod to Trump's famous criticism of him. Then they did an awkward low-five, with Bush hitting Trump's hand so hard the billionaire nearly appeared to wince. —Russell Berman
11:05 p.m.: “A lot of what we’ve talked about tonight will be forgotten very quickly,” says Donald Trump. That has sometimes seemed to be the basic operating premise of his campaign. We’ll see if it holds true again here. —Yoni Appelbaum
10:59 p.m.: I think it's much more disqualifying and patronizing to suggest that the only accomplished woman is the one who puts up with you. —Molly Ball
10:53 p.m.: Who should go on the $10 bill? Ted Cruz nails this one. He rejects the premise, saying he’d take Jackson off the $20 instead, and replace him with Rosa Parks. Jeb Bush, by contrast, gives an answer that encapsulates his entire campaign: Margaret Thatcher. His donors will love it. Primary voters? Not so much. —Yoni Appelbaum
10:52 p.m.: Oh, vaccinations. Recall that Christie got everyone else in the GOP field in trouble in February, when he waded into the debate over mandatory vaccines for children, forcing his fellow competitors, like Paul, to chime in with their opinions. Back then, Christie said parents should choose whether to vaccinate, then quickly walked it back, saying instead that getting vaccinated against diseases like measles is a must. Tonight, he's stayed mum so far.—Marina Koren
10:51 p.m.: There's often a nuance lost in the debate over climate change among Republicans. While there are plenty in Congress who agree with Jim Inhofe, the Oklahoma senator, that it's a hoax, others like Rubio and Christie don't question its existence so much as the U.S.'s ability to confront it without either A) an equal commitment from major foreign polluters like China and India, or B) compromising the U.S. economy. —Russell Berman
10:50 p.m.: When asked about social security, Donald Trump leaves policy up to the people. “The fact is that there are people that truly don't need it and there are many people that do need it very, very badly,” he said. Christie, who was reason for the question, cited the percentage of federal spending going toward entitlements and debt service. In any case, the exchange perhaps serves as an example of how Trump gets by with blanket statements, while other candidates surface numbers as evidence. —Priscilla Alvarez
10:48 p.m.: Entitlements, climate change, vaccines … the debate is ending, and the moderators have finally shown up. They’re pressing candidates for answers on issues they don’t always encounter on the trail, and generating some fascinating responses. It’s tempting to imagine what the last three hours might have sounded like had they consistently pursued a similar approach. —Yoni Appelbaum
10:47 p.m.: Christie agrees with Rubio on what do to about climate change: "We shouldn't be destroying our economy to chase some wild left-wing idea that somehow [we], by ourselves, [are] going to fix the climate." —Marina Koren
10:47 p.m.: Marco Rubio says "we're not going to destroy our economy" to pursue policies to fight climate change and that "America is not a planet." It's an argument that will likely resonate among environmentally skeptical GOP voters, but I doubt their grandchildren will appreciate it. —Matt Ford
10:44 p.m.: And we have our first mention of climate change, two-and-a-half hours into the debate (actually it's more than four, if you count the undercard event). —Russell Berman
10:43 p.m.: Christie gets his moment talking about entitlement reform, a popular stance with the GOP establishment that has almost no constituency, either in the general electorate or the Republican base. —Molly Ball
10:42 p.m.: It would be fascinating to see what the states would do with the freedom they would gain under a president like Rand Paul who has an ideological commitment to letting them govern at the local level, save when the constitutional rights of citizens would be violated. The focus is understandably on drug policy, but federal sticks and carrots affect state policy across all sorts of issues. —Conor Friedersdorf
10:39 p.m.: The fact that mass incarceration is being referenced as a major problem by multiple candidates in a Republican primary debate highlights the level to which the dialogue on criminal-justice system has shifted toward rehabilitation over retribution. —Tyler Bishop
10:38 p.m.: After a back-and-forth by Paul and Christie over the War on Drugs, Fiorina gets personal. "My husband Frank and I buried a child to drug addiction," she said. "Smoking today is not the same as the marijuana that Jeb Bush smoked 40 years ago ... drug addiction is an epidemic. And it is taking too many of our young people.” —Marina Koren
10:37 p.m.: Carly Fiorina brings a deeply personal perspective to the debate over marijuana legalization, noting that she and her husband have buried a child due "to drug addiction." She calls for more investment in treatment but says she opposes the legalization of recreational marijuana, joining Chris Christie against Rand Paul. —Russell Berman
10:33 p.m.: There’s something surreal about a debate featuring large numbers of aging boomers lecturing young people on crime and drug abuse—when both have, on the whole, consistently fallen in recent decades. The audience is eating it up, but then, to judge by the panning shots, it’s not demographically dissimilar from the candidates. Playing to the crowd here may not be the best approach for reaching minority voters or younger generations, as the GOP clearly needs to do. —Yoni Appelbaum
10:31 p.m.: The first mention of race in this debate comes from Rand Paul, who says that the war on drugs has had "a racial outcome." —Russell Berman
10:30 p.m. Rand Paul accused a rival of hypocrisy on drug laws, and Jeb Bush stepped forward to identify himself as the intended target of the barb. “So 40 years ago, I smoked marijuna and I admit it,” Jeb said. Perhaps, he continued, his rivals had done the same, but didn’t want to say it in front of 40 million people. “My mom’s not happy that I just did.” He defended the drug courts and other reforms he’d put in place in Florida, as well has his vote against medical marijuana. Jeb, for a moment, lowered his guard enough to show the audience a more personal side, and it responded. —Yoni Appelbaum
10:23 p.m. Jeb Bush has not given a very smooth answer on whether his brother's appointment of John Roberts as chief justice was a mistake, but he did score a point against Ted Cruz by getting him to admit, under some duress, that he backed Roberts' confirmation at the time even though he now says his nomination was wrong. —Russell Berman
10:22 p.m.: John Roberts is getting a lot of criticism tonight from some candidates for the Obamacare rulings. Ted Cruz now says he wouldn't vote for him in the Senate. The right-wing backlash towards the chief justice for those decisions is understandable, but historians 100 years from now may be astounded that GOP candidates once thought Roberts wasn't a conservative. —Matt Ford
10:21 p.m.: One takeaway from this debate: Jeb Bush is just really not good at this. He's consistently having trouble landing his points, and he's not quick on his feet.—Molly Ball
10:20 p.m.: The stock market has seen some wild swings in recent weeks. The Federal Reserve may decide to start raising interest rates as soon as tomorrow. Political scientists overwhelmingly believe that the health of the economy is the single most important factor in deciding national elections. Watching this debate, though, that’s hard to credit. —Yoni Appelbaum
10:15 p.m.: "I'm not sending our sons and daughters back to Iraq," pledges Rand Paul. —Conor Friedersdorf
10:14 p.m.: Being in this debate is like being the percussionist in the orchestra. You have to count rests for hundreds of bars, come in at the right time, and hope people remember your little solo. —Molly Ball
10:13 p.m.: There's an interesting divide here on foreign policy, with Rand Paul, Ben Carson, and Donald Trump all declaring that the Iraq war was a bad idea. The polls would seem to suggest that the Republican base is perfectly happy with a candidate who believes that. —Conor Friedersdorf
10:12 p.m.: It will be interesting to see how voters respond to Carson after this debate. His low-key performance in the first debate generated very little buzz, but he has risen in the polls more than anyone else in the month since. His responses tonight have been similarly mellow and somewhat inconsistent, but his softer style certainly stands out on this stage. —Russell Berman
10:12 p.m.: As the debate turns and enters its homestretch, it’s striking what a narrow range of topics it’s addressed, despite stretching more than two hours. There’s been endless discussion if Islamic extremism, Syria, and Iran; a little on taxes; and some memorable exchanges on Planned Parenthood. But despite several efforts by candidates to insist that everyday economic concerns are the highest priority for ordinary Americans, pocketbook issues have mostly been an afterthought. —Yoni Appelbaum
10:10 p.m.: Ben Carson complained a few minutes ago that hadn't received any questions about foreign policy, but his meandering, hard-to-follow answer about how he would have reacted to 9/11 shows maybe he was better off that way. —David Graham
10:08 p.m.: The GOP's continuing fissures on Iraq on display here as Trump, Paul, and Carson all trumpet their opposition to the Iraq war. —Molly Ball
10:05 p.m.: Twelve years after the Iraq War, it's a little surprising that the current Democratic frontrunner supported the invasion and current GOP frontrunner didn't. —Matt Ford
10:03 p.m.: Jeb Bush declares that his brother "kept us safe." In fact, George W. Bush presided during the worst terrorist attack in American history—and then he launched a war in Iraq that killed even more Americans than 9/11. —Conor Friedersdorf
10:01 p.m.: One of the biggest applause lines of the night comes from a distinctly improbable source: Jeb Bush defending his brother’s record in office. “You know what?” he told Trump. “As it relates to my brother, there’s one thing I can say: He kept us safe.” For Jeb, who has often seemed uncertain how to address his brother’s legacy, it’s a rare chance to bask in the applause of an enthusiastic crowd. —Yoni Appelbaum
10:01 p.m.: It's impressive that Trump can offer an answer where he both trumpets the fact that he opposed the Iraq war and also says, "I am a very militaristic person.” —David Graham
10:00 p.m.: Hugh Hewitt asks Bush about why so many of his foreing-policy advisers are veterans of his brother's and father's administrations. What's striking here is how weak Bush's answer remains, nine months into his candidacy. His first answer, which seems to be made almost off the cuff, is to point out that he has to pick people who are experienced, which means going to the last two Republican presidents—"41 and 43," he calls them, using the family nicknames. He may be right, but it doesn't do much to assuage the fear that Jeb would be just more of the same as George W. and George H.W. —David Graham
9:59 p.m.: Donald Trump refers to Hugh Hewitt's "gotcha" question about ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, and IRGC commander Qassem Suleimani as "Arab name, Arab name, Arab name." Suleimani, for the record, has a Persian name. —Matt Ford
9:58 p.m.: Rubio's answer on his "absentee" voting record in the Senate is, unfortunately, a very eloquent argument for his immediate resignation. "I'm not running for reelection," he notes. But his term isn't up for another 15 months. —Russell Berman
9:55 p.m. : Hugh Hewitt, in a previous radio interview, asked Donald Trump about Iran’s Quds Force; Trump apparently thought he was asking about the Kurds. Trump’s defense of his confusion during that interview—that no one can keep Arab names straight, anyway—is difficult to square with his insistence earlier in the debate on the dangers of the Middle East. Marco Rubio pounces, using it as an opportunity to draw a sharp contrast with Trump’s inexperience on foreign policy. Scored on points, it’s an exchange Rubio wins. But that was true of exchanges in the first debate, too, and they didn’t slow Trump’s momentum. —Yoni Appelbaum
9:52 p.m.: Here we go: A foreign-policy question to Trump about whether or not he knows enough details to be commander in chief. The question is about Trump's fumble of a question about the Quds Force vs. the Kurds on Hugh Hewitt's radio show. Trump's defense: Few people in America know who those people are, and I'll hire great people who do. Of course, the bar is higher for the president than for most Americans. —David Graham
9:50 p.m.: Chris Christie, alluding to his experience as a U.S. attorney, promises to "prosecute Mrs. Clinton on that stage" in a general election debate. —David Graham
9:48 p.m.: Hugh Hewitt inquired about John Kasich and Carly Fiorina’s styles in approaching Hillary Clinton. On why Kasich won’t criticize the Democratic frontrunner, “People still have to get to know me.” Carly Fiorina, not so much. As Hewitt noted, she’ll bring Clinton up no problem. “Mrs. Clinton will have to defend her track record,” she said. —Priscilla Alvarez
9:46 p.m. In the earlier debate tonight, Rick Santorum made an impassioned case for the minimum wage that will likely wind up in a Democratic campaign ad. In the main event just now, Donald Trump just did the same for increasing taxes on the wealthy along the lines of what President Obama has repeatedly proposed. —Russell Berman
9:46 p.m.: When time travel is invented, there will be a Republican primary debate, and after each question, they'll travel back in time to ask Ronald Reagan to pick the winner. Perhaps Peggy Noonan could help polish his answers. —Conor Friedersdorf
9:45 p.m.: Between Huckabee's suggestion to "get rid of all taxes on people who produce" and Carson's argument against progressive taxation for millionaires, the consensus seems to be that most federal revenue should be drawn from poor people. —Matt Ford
9:44 p.m.: We’ve gone from a discussion of more progressive taxation, from Donald Trump, to the case for a minimum wage, from Ben Carson. Scott Walker is quick to take aim, but one thing the rise of these outsiders has done is shake-up the settled orthodoxies of the Republican Party. —Yoni Appelbaum
9:41 p.m.: "We ought to get rid of all the taxes on people who produce," Huckabee says. He goes on to talk about the Fair Tax. But the Fair Tax turns out to be pretty regressive. That sits uneasily with the populist, blue-collar mantle Huckabee has tried to claim in this command, including his defense of entitlements. —David Graham
9:40 p.m.: With the moderators apparently uninterested in controlling the debate, candidates are stepping forward to wrest control of its flow. It’s created a debate operating on two levels—the substantive exchanges on policies and records, and the battle among the candidates to show that they can run roughshod over their rivals and the moderators to deliver their well-rehearsed lines. —Yoni Appelbaum
9:39 p.m.: What was interesting about Christie's answer was that he had no interest in discussing the reason he was brought into the discussion in the first place: the collapse of Atlantic City, the major tourist mecca in his state, under his watch. —Russell Berman
9:38 p.m.: Despite the fact that there are two businesspeople on this stage, which is presumed to be a great advantage, the last few minutes have not been good for anyone involved. Fiorina has to face the reality of her bumpy and widely derided tenure at HP; Trump has to face the fact that he's filed for corporate bankruptcy repeatedly and run up incredible debt; and since they were talking about casinos, Christie has to face the fact that Atlantic City failed under his watch. —David Graham
9:37 p.m.: A little commentary on elocution: Carly Fiorina is arguably the most well-spoken candidate on stage. Each of her responses and rebuttals has been clear and to the point (even when she’s dodging the substance of the questions) and she hasn’t batted an eye at Jake Tapper’s “thank you”s, as he tries to cut her off. Presentation is important, and she may be winning on that front. —Tyler Bishop
9:35 p.m.: Bully Christie is back and he's snapping at Fiorina: "Carly, listen. You can interrupt everyone up here, but you can't interrupt me." —David Graham
9:33 p.m.: Carly brings the hammer down on Trump once again: "Why should we trust you to manage the finances of this nation any better than you managed the finances of your casinos?" —Molly Ball
9:32 p.m. Donald Trump correctly notes most of the world doesn't have birthright citizenship, but not that almost all countries in the Western Hemisphere do. It's a key difference between Old World's blood-and-soil ethnic nationalism and the civic nationalism more common in the New World. —Matt Ford
9:31 p.m.: Carly Fiorina makes an argument for immigration reform that's sometimes heard from conservatives who want reform: that Democrats love having the problem unsolved, because it's a good wedge issue for them. It's certainly true that Democrats love the wedge issue, but it's tough to look at the last four years and claim Republicans haven't been delighted to block reform. —David Graham
9:31 p.m.: That’s the second time tonight that Trump has tried, and failed, to cut off Carly Fiorina. There’s clear tension between the two of them—it’s not just an artifact of CNN’s putting them up together on a split screen. And so far tonight, she’s the only one of the bunch who seems able to handle him effectively. —Yoni Appelbaum
9:30 p.m.: Donald Trump's exegesis of the 14th Amendment would be problematic if it weren't so incoherent. He appears to be arguing that real scholars—"not television scholars"—believe that the amendment doesn't guarantee birthright citizenship. I'd like him to name who these supposed "great legal scholars" are. —David Graham
9:28 p.m.: The last time Donald Trump trotted out this argument about birthright citizenship, my colleague Garrett Epps pointed out an unexpected wrinkle: If the children of illegal immigrants aren’t citizens under the Fourteenth Amendment, then they’re also not subject to the jurisdiction of the United States, and so not subject to our laws. I’d like to see someone ask him about that. —Yoni Appelbaum
9:22 p.m.: Ben Carson wants to "turn off the spigot that spews all the goodies" and draws immigrants to the U.S. What precisely does he want to turn off? The American economy? As long as there's an economic incentive to immigrate, people will try to do so, legally or illegally. —David Graham
9:21 p.m.: Jeb Bush defended speaking Spanish despite Donald Trump’s criticism of him for doing so. Marco Rubio piggybacked off Trump, agreeing that it’s important to speak English in the U.S. —Priscilla Alvarez
9:20 p.m.: Dana Bash gives Jeb Bush the chance to respond to Donald Trump's attacks on his wife. For more about Columba Bush, check out Hanna Rosin's June profile. —Matt Ford
9:19 p.m.: Bush is just absolutely in disbelief at the things Trump is saying right next to him. —David Graham
9:19 p.m.: Bush asks Trump to apologize to Bush's wife, who was born in Mexico, for suggesting she plays a role in Bush's stance on immigration. Bush, who said recently that he can't remember the last time he apologized to someone, refused to apologize. This we saw coming. —Marina Koren
9:17 p.m.: And Carly Fiorina weighs in to take Russell’s side, arguing that Trump doesn’t deserve credit for putting immigration at the center of the debate. Maybe she’s following the liveblog? —Yoni Appelbaum
9:16 p.m.: I've got to disagree with Russell—I do think Trump has made the issue a bigger one, and he's dragged the party far to the right on it—but it's absolutely also true that Trump is delusional to claim no one else was talking about it before him. —David Graham
9:16 p.m.: Perhaps it's a minor point, but nothing makes Trump seem more divorced from reality than when he claims that illegal immigration would not be an issue in the presidential campaign were he not a candidate. Say what? He repeats this often, but the truth is that immigration has been one of the biggest issues in politics since President Obama won reelection. It would be just as significant an issue in this race if he weren't running. —Russell Berman
9:15 p.m.: When Ben Carson shows up, he tends to impress—he's giving a detailed answer now about why the Yuma County, Arizona, fence is better than most border fences. But when he's not talking, he tends to disappear from view for extended periods. —David Graham
9:14 p.m.: Donald Trump, speaking on illegal immigration, tells the crowd, "We don't have a border anymore. We don't have a country anymore." Maybe the hats should say "Make America Exist Again"? —Matt Ford
9:14 p.m.: We’re an hour in, and we’ve barely heard from Ben Carson, who’s currently second in many polls. He has a down-to-earth manner that stands out on the stage, but also a tendency to offer anecdotes instead of answers. —Yoni Appelbaum
9:13 p.m.: What a gift for Trump from Tapper—after being zinged by Fiorina, he gets to answer a question on immigration, which is of course his bread and butter. It gives him a chance to get back on his game again. His answer is the usual: Wall, deportation, etc., etc. —David Graham
9:12 p.m.: It's hard to believe we're only one hour into this debate. It's even harder to believe there are two more hours to go. —Matt Ford
9:11 p.m.: Takeaways from the first hour: Trump seems remarkably tentative. He's scrambling a little. Fiorina is on—she's had several big lines. —Molly Ball
9:09 p.m.: Donald Trump's default mode, and a big part of his appeal, is establishing himself as the alpha male. That may help him when he's standing beside Jeb Bush. He doesn't know what to do about a woman like Carly Fiorina who projects strength and confidence. —Conor Friedersdorf
9:08 p.m.: “Mr. Trump said he heard clearly what Mr. Bush said. I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said,” Fiorina says. That's a great zinger. And Trump's reply is a disaster: He says Fiorina has a beautiful face, once again reducing a woman to an object. Eesh. —David Graham
9:07 p.m.: If you watch Jeb Bush's body language while Trump is speaking throughout this debate, it's clear he can't believe he's standing next to him on a presidential debate stage. —Russell Berman
9:06 p.m.: Here's a quick reminder on the Planned Parenthood policy question: There are two problems with defunding Planned Parenthood here. The first is that time and again, courts have struck down defunding them as depriving patients of the right to choose their own health providers. The second is that there aren't enough providers available immediately who also accept Medicaid to fill the gap is Planned Parenthood is suddenly removed from the market. That's why these efforts have tended to fail in the past—even if there's an overwhelming political will to do so. —David Graham
9:05 p.m.: "I will take care of women, I respect women, I will take care of women," Donald Trump protests a bit too much. —David Graham
9:04 p.m.: If it wasn't clear already, the Planned Parenthood videos, whatever one thinks of them, are a fantastically successful activist effort: they've dominated a significant part of a nationally televised presidential debate, and there must be thousands if not tens of thousands of Americans Googling them to figure out, "Now what are these videos again?” —Conor Friedersdorf
9:03 p.m.: By far the biggest applause of the night for Carly Fiorina's impassioned reenactment of the Planned Parenthood videos. She's a very effective communicator, and she knows how to connect with a Republican audience. —Molly Ball
9:03 p.m.: Fiorina has come prepared to this debate with extremely detailed plans for every occasion. It's not clear that they're really going to work—could she really rally the world to reimpose sanctions on Iran? It seems unlikely—but the fact that she has details sets her apart from the rest of the field. —David Graham
9:02 p.m.: Did you know that Jim Gilmore is debating the 11 candidates on stage right now? No time limit for him, just a character limit—the former Virginia governor is live-tweeting the event, posting messages every few minutes. Gilmore didn't make it in front of that great big plane tonight because he is polling below 1 percent. —Marina Koren
Did Trump try to buy Jeb Bush? #GOPDebate— James S Gilmore (@gov_gilmore) September 17, 2015
9:01 p.m.: Ted Cruz doesn't have a good answer for why shutting down the government in a bid to defund Planned Parenthood won't be a political disaster for the Republican Party, or why it would succeed when similar efforts have failed in the past, but he does manage to turn his answer into a very effective one for the GOP base, by speaking with obvious emotion about his pro-life views and bashing the Republican leadership in Congress. —David Graham
8:59 p.m.: John Kasich is arguing that Planned Parenthood should be defunded, and states should be allowed to do so. Interestingly, The Washington Post went to a Planned Parenthood clinic in Akron, in Kasich's state of Ohio, for a story today. —David Graham
8:57 p.m.: Mike Huckabee compares the religious accommodations given to Guantanamo detainees to the lack of accommodations given to Kim Davis, reiterating his claim about the "criminalization of Christianity." But Gitmo detainees aren't citizens, they weren’t sworn to uphold the Constitution, and they weren't defying a Supreme Court ruling. —Matt Ford
8:55 p.m.: Mike Huckabee still does not understand how judicial review works, which is pretty stunning, given that he’s a former governor running for president. It’s an issue I’ve written about before. —David Graham
8:54 p.m.: John Kasich’s refusal to label the Iran deal as a failure sounds a whole lot like the rhetoric of a Republican candidate who’s running in the general election. The problem is that it might alienate voters that he needs to get ahead in the early primary states. —Tyler Bishop
8:53 p.m.: One of the most piercing critiques of Trump during the undercard debate came from Bobby Jindal, who said that "God-forbid if he were in the White House, we have no idea what he’d do." If that's true, it’s because so often, Trump refuses to say anything specific. That last Syria answer demonstrated that more than ever, as Trump stumbled his way toward a predictably blustery, but vague, response. —Russell Berman
8:52 p.m.: John Kasich is delivering an awfully full-throated defense of Obama's Iran deal, arguing that it's based on verification and not trust. On a Republican debate stage, too! —David Graham
8:50 p.m.: Trump likens Obama to the lion from The Wizard of Oz and blames him for Europe's migrant crisis in one answer. "He just doesn't have courage," Trump said. Had Obama "done something to Assad, if he had gone in with tremendous force, you wouldn't have millions of people displaced all over the world." —Marina Koren
8:49 p.m.: There are 11 candidates on the stage, but only one interested in pushing back on the use of military force in Syria. “Had we bombed Assad at the time...like many Republicans wanted, I think ISIS would be in Damascus today,” Rand Paul said. It’s a highly debatable claim, but although they were in town for a debate, the other ten didn’t seem interested in debating it, choosing instead to compete on pure bellicosity. —Yoni Appelbaum
8:47 p.m.: Well, I guess we've learned that the Republican candidates don't like the Iran deal. —David Graham
8:44 p.m.: Once again, Rand Paul is the sanest foreign policy voice on the GOP debate stage. All it takes, these days, is urging the continuation of diplomacy, something that many candidates and large swaths of the conservative base have inexplicably turned against. —Conor Friedersdorf
8:43 p.m.: Ted Cruz just delivered a dazzling moment, talking about the Iran deal and noting that as Texas solicitor general, he won a court case (Medellin v. Texas) that found that the U.S. can't be bound by the UN because that would constitute a surrender of sovereignty. But it's a little beside the point: The argument made by those who say the Iran deal can't be easily abandoned is not that there's no right to do so, but that doing so would badly damage American credibility in future diplomacy. —David Graham
8:42 p.m.: Earlier tonight, Jake Tapper asked Jeb Bush if "the $100 million you've raised for your campaign makes you a puppet for your donors." Except Bush's campaign hasn't raised that money; Right to Rise, the superPAC that supports him, actually raised it. It's an important distinction, since campaigns and candidates aren't allowed to coordinate with superPACs. Bush didn't correct Tapper's phrasing. —Matt Ford
8:41 p.m.: We're rounding the half-hour mark here, and I think it's safe to say that Jake Tapper is not in control of this debate. The candidates—and specifically Bush, Trump, Fiorina, and Carson—are totally dominating things. It's hard to comment much on the policy, because the right to respond to any attack has made it easy for the candidates to speak in broad generalities while sniping at each other. —David Graham
8:40 p.m.: Carly Fiorina declares that she would not talk to Vladimir Putin at all. This is a stock populist answer in Republican debates. "Don't talk to bad people!" It's also absurd. Talking to hostile countries has reaped huge benefits over the course of history, as anyone standing in a Ronald Reagan library ought to understand. —Conor Friedersdorf
8:40 p.m.: Donald Trump has often said he and Russian President Vladimir Putin would "get along very well." And he said it again tonight, this time in an explanation of his strategy for handling the growing presence of the Russian military inside Syria, a close ally of Moscow, which has put U.S. officials on edge. "I would talk to him, I would get along with him," Trump said. —Marina Koren
8:38 p.m.: "The pundits forgot about one thing, and that is the people," Carson says of the outsider trend. —David Graham
8:37 p.m.: Jeb is a good microcosm of the GOP establishment here. He threw facts at Trump; Trump brazenly denied it; Jeb sputtered. How do you deal with someone like that? —Molly Ball
8:36 p.m.: More energy tonight, Trump just told Jeb Bush, while successfully cutting him off. I like that. There’s a lot of substantive disagreement on the stage. But one thing these candidates are competing to do is project an image of control and authority. Trump gets no points for manners, but he won that round. —Yoni Appelbaum
8:35 p.m.: Carly Fiorina just made what sure seemed like a reference to David Foster Wallace's celebrated Kenyon College graduation speech, which he kicked off with a joke about how young fish don't know they're swimming in water until asked about it by an older, wiser fish. Here's Fiorina on how politicians don't get how broken the system is: "When a fish swims in water, it doesn't know it's water." —David Graham
Whoa! Did Carly Fiorina just reference David Foster Wallace speech?— Beth Reinhard (@bethreinhard) September 17, 2015
8:33 p.m.: John Kasich cut in to complain that there was too little conversation about issues, and that he'd turn the debate off if he was a viewer. Jake Tapper assured him there were issues questions coming—then immediately uncorked what is essentially a style question, about voters' apparent affection for "outsider" candidates. I guess Kasich had a point! —David Graham
8:32 p.m.: The more I watch Trump debate, the more fascinated I get by his obsession with polling. He's the perfect pop-art reflection of the Nate Silver age, where quantification is what matters most. Trump's answer to everything: _Hey, this is where I am in the polls; this is where you are. Need I say more? —David Graham
8:31 p.m.: Ben Carson may be a "non-politician," but he sure knows how to dodge a direct question like a pro. He declines to say which of the other Republicans were prone to "politically expedient" decision-making. —Russell Berman
8:29 p.m.:Scott Walker delivers a great line: "We don't need an apprentice in the White House—we have one right now.” —David Graham
8:28 p.m.: One of Trump's distinguishing characteristics as a politician is his willingness to punch down. He proved that he watched the undercard debate by making sure to respond to George Pataki's criticism of his failed casinos in Atlantic City. —Russell Berman
8:26 p.m.:Tapper keeps asking candidates whether they’d be comfortable with Trump’s “finger on the nuclear codes.” Even leaving aside the bungled metaphor, it’s an oddly out-of-place question. It helped sink the presidential aspirations of Arizona’s Barry Goldwater half a century ago; it took a Californian to combine Goldwater’s conservative faith with a less aggressive demeanor to capture the White House. The risk of Trump shooting off nuclear missiles isn’t what gives most skeptical voters pause. But the query raises another question: Is there a candidate on the stage who can sell Trump’s positions less bluntly, the Reagan to his Goldwater? And even if there is, that actually what people want? —Yoni Appelbaum
8:22 p.m.: This debate is shaping up nicely already—Tapper asks Carly Fiorina whether she'd feel comfortable with Donald Trump's finger on the nuclear codes. When she ducks the question, he calls her on it—though she ducks again, saying it's up to the voters. Trump, in his rebuttal, takes a shot at Rand Paul in a total non-sequitur, saying he shouldn't be on stage. —David Graham
8:20 p.m.: Just like the “kid’s table” debate, Jake Tapper starts off with a question on Donald Trump. —Priscilla Alvarez
8:18 p.m.:John Kasich wins the introduction round by pointing out that he flew on the plane behind the candidates when Ronald Reagan was president. —David Graham
8:17 p.m.: Donald Trump's phrase, "I say, not in a braggadocio way..." may be the least credible thing that he has said in the many decades he has been in the public eye. —Conor Friedersdorf
8:16 p.m.: Mike Huckabee delivers an amusing if weird opening riff, saying the Republican slate are "the A-Team," which Donald Trump as their own Mr. T, who isn't afraid to call anyone a fool. Is this brilliant or bizarre? —David Graham
8:13 p.m.: I'm curious to see whether Hugh Hewitt, who has strong views about foreign policy, tries to tilt the debate in favor of his kind of candidate: the establishment interventionist. But in the undercard debate, he got very little camera time, so his approach may not end up mattering. —Conor Friedersdorf
8:10 p.m.: My favorite silly pundit debate prediction is that Donald Trump is going to "play against type" by being subdued and substantive. I recall hearing that a lot before the last debate, too. But I have a feeling Trump knows that's not what people are tuning in for. —Molly Ball
8:02 p.m.: Tonight’s debate is scheduled to last for two hours and 45 minutes. That’s not a record for American political debates. Back in 1858, when Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas squared off seven times, each debate lasted three hours. But in 1858, there were only two of them up on stage. One opened by speaking for an hour, the second followed with an hour-and-a-half rebuttal, and the first then delivered a 30-minute closing statement. Tonight, 90 seconds may seem like a luxury, let alone 90 minutes.
But if the format has changed, there is one striking similarity. The whole nation followed their battles, and it feels as if the whole nation is watching tonight—and, according to Nielsen, a good chunk of it actually is. —Yoni Appelbaum
7:53 p.m.: The moment in the JV debate that Republicans ought to ponder most is the exchange between Lindsey Graham and Bobby Jindal, where the former criticized the latter for talking about governing as if sheer will alone is what's needed. In fact, GOP officials have failed to do a lot of what their conservative base wants because they don't have the votes, or the support from the public, that is required. Jindal is at his most absurd when he insists that what's really needed is the passage of bills that President Obama would immediately veto, and Graham called him on just that, pointing out, “The world really is the way it is.” You wouldn't know it from Jindal's rhetoric. —Conor Friedersdorf
7:51 p.m.: This debate has been a great illustration of the GOP's internal fights, particularly that exchange between Jindal—taking the anti-establishment Ted Cruz line against party leadership in Congress—and Graham, arguing for incremental progress and the art of the possible. —Molly Ball
7:47 p.m.: In this year of the political outsider, we’re witnessing the odd spectacle of a former senator and a governor, and a current senator and a governor, posing for photographs before being ushered off the stage, their places taken by, among others, a real-estate developer, a former technology executive, and a neurosurgeon. Next year, Lindsey Graham will still be in the senate, and many of those polling far ahead of him will be sitting at home. But for tonight, at least, the pecking order is clear. —Yoni Appelbaum
7:45 p.m.: Bobby Jindal effectively began his 2016 presidential campaign in the weeks after President Obama won reelection in 2012 by saying the GOP could not be "the stupid party." Yet with his back against the wall in the primary, he's joined conservatives like Ted Cruz in the puzzling strategy of shutting down the government to defund Planned Parenthood. Lindsey Graham called him out on that at the end of the undercard debate, saying it was impossible to do while Obama was president and would hurt the party's chances in the general election. —Russell Berman
7:43 p.m.: The consensus on the undercard debate: Much feistier than last time. These candidates came to play, perhaps because the last debate revealed that people are actually watching. —Molly Ball
7:42 p.m.: Rick Santorum is the only Republican candidate in favor of raising the minimum wage, and although his proposal of 50 cents a year for three years is rather puny in comparison to the $12-$15 an hour that Democrats now support, his answer on that question was by far his most impassioned and eloquent moment of the first debate. It also might end up in a Democratic campaign ad next fall. —Russell Berman
7:40 p.m.: Pataki had a bit of a moment when he said, almost Trump-style, that he would have "fired" Kim Davis, the Kentucky clerk. But it wasn't that easy. One of the big complications with her situation was that county clerk is an elected official in Kentucky, so she couldn't simply be fired. That's why the judge had to hold her in contempt and jail her for not following a court order. —Russell Berman
7:37 p.m.: Graham and Pataki are getting buzz for their relatively moderate answers (Graham on immigration, Pataki on Kim Davis), but they're also demonstrating why they're not on the main debate stage—they're out of touch with their party's conservative base. —Molly Ball
7:37 p.m.: Lindsey Graham is doing many things in this undercard debate, and one of them is to dominate the terms of the discussion and serve as a fourth moderator. He forced Rick Santorum to elaborate on his failed immigration plan in the Senate, and he's used CNN's looser rules of engagement to force the other candidates to say whether they'd put U.S. ground forces into Iraq and Syria. —Russell Berman
7:35 p.m.: Call it the Donald Trump effect: CNN’s moderators spent the beginning of the first debate asking questions about the billionaire; and then, when they finally turned to the issues, they began with immigration, which might not be at the center of the Republican campaign if not for Trump. The voices in the GOP who think the party's future relies on winning more Hispanic votes are tonight's first losers. —Conor Friedersdorf
7:33 p.m.: Lindsey Graham was uncharacteristically glum at the last debate, but this time he's feisty and funny, debating immigration (and defending immigrants) in a heated exchange with Rick Santorum. —Molly Ball
All Republican presidential candidates of the last few decades have had to define themselves in the shadow of Ronald Reagan—but not always this directly.
Fifteen hopefuls gather on Wednesday night in Simi Valley, at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, to make their case to Republican primary voters that they deserve their party’s nod. In the first debate, at 6 p.m. eastern time, four candidates languishing in the polls tried to convince voters, and their donors, not to write them off. As Russell Berman observed, what that debate lacked in big names it made up in high drama—the candidates could win, like Carly Fiorina, or go home, like Rick Perry.
The other 11 candidates take the stage at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library at 8 p.m. eastern. There’s no shortage of story lines to follow: Ben Carson is surging, Jeb Bush is faltering, and Rand Paul risks disappearing. But, as Molly Ball memorably put it, the main show tonight will be:
Trump Trump Trump Trump Trump. Trumpety-Trump. Trump-a-Trump; Trump Trump; Trump Trump.
The real-estate mogul has surged to the front of the field. Many pundits, and one Luntz-led focus group, panned his performance in the first debate, but he has only increased his support in the polls since then. He is joined by Carson, a retired neurosurgeon. Together with Carly Fiorina, the former tech executive who won promotion to the main event on the strength of her performance in the last debate, these three candidates who have never held local, state, or federal office now consistently capture the majority of likely Republican voters in state and national polls.
So the ten candidates who aren’t Trump, and the eight with a history of public service, now face a difficult set of choices. Will they attack their less-experienced rivals, in an effort to tarnish their glow? Will they try to rise above the fray, gambling that if they can hang on long enough, the normal political laws will again begin to operate? Or will they say outrageous things and take enormous risks, to try to capture some of the spotlight and hang on to what supporters and donors they still retain?
Each of the candidates will have to find his or her own answers. (You can find out more about them by using our handy Cheat Sheet.) A record 24 million viewers tuned in to watch the last debate; this round promises to be at least as entertaining. —Yoni Appelbaum