The gloves came off early against Donald Trump, and the hits were sustained against the GOP front-runner for most of Wednesday night's marathon three hour CNN debate.
Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio both memorably clashed with Trump — and emerged on top, likely improving their standing in the GOP race.
Fiorina — who impressed at the last undercard debate enough to make the main stage — made her presence felt early and often with passionate responses on Planned Parenthood funding and abortion and witty comebacks to Trump's hit last week on her appearance.
Rubio impressed on foreign policy, challenging Trump on his lack of international and Middle East knowledge.
Some of the candidates who didn't stand out from the pack at the last debate also stepped up, including New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, was was, indeed, higher energy this time around. And surging neurosurgeon Ben Carson got more time as well, often appearing very even-handed, but also reticent to take on Trump. But as the debate wore on, even Trump seemed to fade from the debate stage.
But others candidates who needed to dominate, didn't. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker didn't land any memorable punches and actually had the least amount of speaking time on stage, per NPR's calculations.
Our liveblog, starting at 8 p.m. ET, is below.
11:10 p.m. After three hours, it's finally over. Read all of our recap below.
10:54 p.m. In this three-hour long and counting debate, we're now in the speed-question part of the debate. What woman should be on the $10 bill? Rubio and Cruz: Rosa Parks. Trump says his daughter Ivanka first, but then Parks. Bush: Margaret Thatcher (a Brit!), Walker: Clara Barton. Huckabee says his wife and Carson says his mother — but the person on a bill has to be dead. Kasich: Mother Theresa. Christie: Abigail Adams. Fiorina won't name one — says it's pandering to women and not necessary.
10:48 p.m. Vaccines are the next topic — Ben Carson, one of two doctors on stage, explains why vaccines don't cause autism. Trump is asked to defend his questions about the matter — in a rambling, confusing answer he says he's not against vaccines but they should be spread out, and still implies he believes they cause autism and shouldn't be mandatory. Paul, the other doctor on stage, says it's a freedom issue, but doesn't get much into the medical aspects of it.
10:30 p.m. On marijuana legalization — something Paul has been supportive of states to decide — calls out fellow candidates who once smoked the drug but now oppose it. It's a flashpoint between him and Bush, who admits 40 years ago he smoked it, but "my mom's not happy" he just admitted it.
It's Christie who has been the most forceful on the issue — saying he would roll back legalization in states if he's elected, and he defends his decision, calling marijuana a "gateway drug" that destroys families.
Fiorina chimes in with a touchingly personal point on why she's opposed to legalization: "My husband and I buried a child to drug addiction," she says. "The marijuana kids smoke today is not marijuana Jeb Bush smoked 40 yrs ago. Smoking marijuana is not like drinking a beer."
10:18 p.m. Cruz throws Chief Justice Roberts under the bus — a friend he used to emulate. After his ObamaCare decision and other decisions he disagrees with, he says he shouldn't have been nominated and confirmed. Jeb Bush is defending his brother's decision. Cruz was pretty quiet when the ObamaCare decision came out earlier this year — but now he's full scale come out against him.
10:15 p.m. Paul hasn't gotten a lot of time, but he reminds why he's winning over libertarians and war-weary millennials. He reiterates his opposition to sending ground troops — "I'm not sending our sons and daughters back to Iraq. The war didn't work."
10:04 p.m. Has Jeb Bush finally found a good answer to how to handle questions about his brother? Trump attacks George W. Bush's presidency, saying it's his fault we now have President Obama.
Jeb Bush, without missing a beat, says "my brother kept us safe." It gets lots of applause.
9:57 p.m. Trump has a chance to defend his foreign policy bona fides ....and he kind of still flubs it. He had a tiff with moderator Hugh Hewitt and says it was him mispronouncing the names, then dismisses them as just "Arab name, Arab name, Arab name." He say he'll be ready on foreign policy when he's elected — but essentially admits he's not up to speed yet — "I will know more about the problems of this world by the time I'm sitting."
Rubio chimes in, saying the presidency isn't an on-the-job learning experience with a strong response. He's tussled with Trump several times, and all came out on top.
9:42 p.m. The economy finally comes up, and Trump is defending the progressive tax plan he says he'll debut soon. Carson sounds undecided on how to reform the tax codes — he's previously said it should be based on the Bible's instruction to tithe, and he later says he wants to tie the minimum wage to inflation. Huckabee has long been a champion for a flat tax. These are all one of the biggest divides in the GOP field.
9:37 p.m. A lot of this debate so far has been Fiorina vs. Trump — and Chris Christie isn't going to take it anymore. He has a good moment, chiming in saying he wants to talk to the middle class worker out there and he doesn't want to hear the "childish back and forth" between them. He gets loud applause. They are dominating the stage, and you can feel the frustration of other candidates. Christie, never one to be shy, is the first to vocalize it.
9:33 p.m. The next Fiorina vs. Trump flashpoint is over her tenure at Hewlett-Packard. She has a good defense — saying it was a vulnerable time with the economy and she was the result of the ouster of a dysfunctional board. It's a defense she gives frequently, but Trump isn't impressed and keeps digging. She has the zinger back, hitting him for his bankruptcies on his casinos. She wins that round.
9:19 p.m. Bush shows some fire in an important exchange with Trump. When asked about his comments that Bush was open to immigration reform because of his Mexican-born wife, Bush says Trump owes his wife, Columba, an apology. No surprise, Trump says he won't apologize.
And as for Trump hitting him on speaking Spanish, Bush has a good defense that he speaks English too, but that he will engage in Spanish when necessary and it's important
It's a good moment for Bush, but then Rubio swoops in and steals his spotlight with an even better answer — defending his own immigrant heritage and the growing Hispanic voting bloc, he says, "I want them to hear from me, not a Univision translator."
9:14 p.m. Hello there, Ben Carson. The second-place candidate was mostly absent during the first hour, not jumping in on foreign policy topics and more. He talks about immigration and the need to secure the border, but it's still a quiet, demurred talk and he won't attack Trump. He doesn't sound like a frontrunner, but more of an afterthought.
9:06 p.m. Just before the commercial, Fiorina finally gets the question — about Trump's comments last week mocking her appearance. When asked if she has anything to say about his face, she has a pitch perfect response — after Trump has spent time attacking Bush for misspeaking on women's health, she says, ""I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said."
Trump tries to save face, telling her, "I think she's got a beautiful face, and I think she is a beautiful woman," but Fiorina's face betrays her — she's not convinced and not amused — and won that exchange by a mile.
9:03 p.m. Kasich is trying to be the adult in the room, carving out a moderate pitch. When asked about Planned Parenthood, he opposes shutting the government down over it because it won't work out. He says when he was in Congress, they could find common ground — but it's a much different Congress than when he was there over a decade ago. It's an echo of what Lindsey Graham said in the earlier debate, that it would tank the GOP.
The biggest defender of this tactic pipes up — Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. "We need to stop surrendering and start standing for our principles." The no-compromise wing is his base, and he's playing to them.
Fiorina chimes in though with a far more passionate, emotional defense — crying that "this is about the character of our nation." She gets the biggest applause of the night for it.
8:55 p.m. Huckabee finally gets his moment when talking about Kim Davis, the Kentucky country clerk who refused to issue gay marriage licenses on religious grounds. He decries the Supreme Court overreaching, and then says that the country has criminalized her faith while making exceptions for others — like Muslim detainees. "There should be accommodation for her conscience."
8:47 p.m. Here's Trump's chance to brush up his bonafides on foreign policy with moderator Hugh Hewitt — he derided him last time after the radio host tripped him up. On Syria, Trump says Obama shouldn't have drawn a line in the sand on engaging them, but says then there was no turning back and he blames the fellow senators. It's somewhat confusing, but Rubio chimes in with the strongest response putting the blame on President Obama — which gets a lot of applause.
8:45 p.m. It's evident why so many candidates on this stage is such a problem — no one is getting much airtime. It's 30 minutes into the debate until Mike Huckabee even gets a question. Other candidates are trying to claw for time and interrupt. Trump seems to have dominated so far, but even he has tried to butt in and get more time. It's something there's precious little of.
8:40 p.m. Rubio and Fiorina both try to stay above the fray on foreign policy. Rubio sounds strong on how he would deal with Russia and restore Ukraine's sovereignty, just after Trump would only say he'd be "great friends" with Vladimir Putin — without offering any other explanation. Fiorina also sounds well-versed in how he would deal with Russia. ""Having met Vladimr Putin, I wouldn't talk to him at all."
8:36 p.m. Trump and Bush — who are next to each other on the stage — have a notable back and forth. Trump has hit Bush for taking corporate money and says he's bought and paid for, but Bush hits the businessman for doing the same thing when he was on the other side — paying for Hillary Clinton to come to his wedding and donating to try to get gambling in Florida — something Trump repeatedly denies, but says at least Jeb is showing "more energy" this time around.
8:31 p.m. The outsiders are defending their rise. Ben Carson says talks about "politically expedient" politicians. Fiorina has a good rip on it too — says people think politicians are corrupt, it's why she and Carson are on the rise.
8:27 p.m. The next target of Trump is Scott Walker, attacking him on his record as Wisconsin governor. Says after Iowans learned about that record, he cratered and Trump rose. Walker jabs back that "We already have an 'Apprentice' in the White House — we don't need another one.'" Walker says Trump is simply repeating Democratic talking points — which will hurt the whole field.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich pipes up though — he wants to be the adult in the room, and decries the personal attacks. "If I were sitting at home watching this back and forth, I'd be inclined to turn it off."
8:22 p.m. First punch comes from The Donald! When he's asked about his qualifications, Trump turns the question and says "Rand Paul shouldn't even be here!" since he's near the bottom. Paul was really the only candidate to attack him last time, and he hasn't forgotten. Paul doesn't mince words though, and says Trump isn't qualified. When he says Trump takes junior high-type jabs at people on their looks, Trump says he's never attacked Paul's looks "though there's plenty there" to insult. So, he just kind of did.
8:20 p.m. CNN is doing their best to bring a fight to the debate stage. Asking Carly Fiorina whether she agrees with Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal that Trump isn't qualified to have the nuclear codes. She dismisses him as an "entertainer," but says that's for voters to decide.
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