No one else stood out as clearly, but Rubio gained in strength as the evening proceeded, particularly when he articulated his hawkish foreign policy views. At various points, Paul, and even more so Christie, displayed vigor and spirit. After a slow start, Bush finished with much more energy than in the first debate. Twice, Bush seemed to best Trump in direct exchanges. The first time came when he defended, to loud applause, his brother George W. Bush’s national security record; the second, more lightly, came toward the end when he declared that his Secret Service code name would be “'Eveready'—it’s very high energy, Donald.”
As in the first debate, Carson was calm and contained, and more compelling when talking about his personal story than about policy. Kasich wasn’t as powerful a presence as in the first debate before a hometown audience in Ohio, but through the evening he repeatedly enunciated a vision that separated him from his rivals by stressing the importance of national unity and working across party lines. Kasich’s most memorable answer may have been his opening statement, when he referred to the plane on the dramatic stage: “By the way, I think I actually flew on this plane with Ronald Reagan when I was a congressman, and his goals, and mine, really much—are pretty much the same. Lift Americans, unify, give hope, grow America, and restore it is to that great, shining city on a hill.”
Walker, Huckabee, and Cruz, each of whom offered a message focused primarily on mobilizing the party’s traditional base, also seemed to have difficulty producing moments that stood out. Cruz probably came closest with his surprisingly intense criticism of John Roberts, who Cruz has said he recruited to work on the recount legal effort for George W. Bush in 2000.
Front-runner Trump was much less animated than in the first debate and struggled with questions that demanded detailed knowledge of foreign policy. Trump at points effectively delivered a message targeted at the blue-collar core of his coalition with his continuing promise of a hard line on immigration, his criticism of special interests that “have a lot of control over our politicians,” and his defense of higher taxes on the rich.
Trump though seemed to recede whenever he wasn’t raining rapid-fire insults at Paul, Bush, Fiorina, Walker, Rubio, George Pataki, and George W. Bush. The attack on the former Republican president, in particular, seemed to expose Trump to the risk of deepening the doubts that polls already show, particularly among college-educated Republicans, about whether his temperament and personality position him to succeed as president.
Overall, this debate seemed unlikely to significantly reshape the competition, in part because some of the candidates who performed best (including Fiorina and Christie) face many obstacles to emerging as a true top-tier contender for the nomination. After the debate concluded, a senior adviser to one of the candidates assessed its likely impact with a persuasive metaphor: “It’s a lot like a roller coaster: It’s an exciting ride, you go up and down, but at the end, you get off pretty much where you got on.” That seems an appropriate verdict for a contentious but clarifying afternoon that demonstrated, above all, how far Republicans are from settling on a direction in 2016.