SIMI VALLEY, Calif. — Donald Trump’s Republican rivals used three different strategies against him Wednesday during the CNN debate: challenge, appease, ignore.
The CNN set was smaller than the Fox News debate in Cleveland, and the candidates were practically in each other’s personal space.
Although candidates like Ben Carson and Trump used the proximity in a light-hearted moment to high-five one another, the tension between Jeb Bush and Trump was obvious, especially when Bush demanded an apology from Trump regarding remarks Trump made about Bush’s wife Columba.
The first question went to Carly Fiorina, when she was asked about her comments on Trump as an entertainer, as well as Gov. Bobby Jindal’s remarks about Trump being dangerous. Fiorina pivoted from the opportunity to slam Trump and took the appeasement route instead.
“You know, I think Mr. Trump is a wonderful entertainer. He’s been terrific at that business,” Fiorina said, who only responded later in the debate that women knew exactly what Trump meant when he made a remark about her face.
Tapper pressed further, saying she did not answer his question. “Would you feel comfortable with Donald Trump’s finger on the nuclear codes? It’s an issue.” (RELATED: 5 Takeaways From The Second GOP Debate)
Fiorina responded, “That’s not for me to answer but the voters of this country to answer, and I have a lot of faith and commonsense and good judgment of the voters of the United States of America.”
Fiorina’s response prompted Trump to go right after Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, an attack that Trump appeared to wanted to get to right away. (RELATED: Fiorina Slaps Back At Trump About Comments About Her Face)
“Well, first of all, Rand Paul shouldn’t even be on this stage. He’s number 11 and has 1 percent in the polls and … there is far too many people anyway. As far as temperament, and we know that as far as temperament, I have a great temperament,” Trump said.
Sen. Paul, whose campaign was running an ad during the debate saying he is a “real conservative” (as opposed to the “fake conservative” he previously accused Trump of being) immediately challenged the New York businessman.
“He was asked whether or not he would be capable and in good hands to be in charge of the nuclear weapons and all of a sudden there is a sideways attack at me. I think that really goes to really the judgment. Do we want someone with that character, that kind of careless language to be negotiating with Putin? Do we want someone like that to be negotiating with Iran?” Paul asked.
“I think really there is a quality that is entertaining about Mr. Trump, but I am worried. I’m very concerned about having him in charge of the nuclear weapons, because I think his response, his visceral response to attack people on their appearance —short, tall, fat, ugly, my goodness, that happened in junior high. Are we not way above that? Would we not all be worried to have someone like that in charge of the nuclear arsenal?” he wondered.
Trump’s reaction to Paul’s challenge: “I never attacked him on looks, and believe me, there is plenty of subject matter there. That I can tell you.”
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who was relatively quiet during the debate, also took a shot at Trump in his initial comments.
“This is what is wrong with the debate. We’re not talking about real issues. Mr. Trump, we don’t need an apprentice in the White House. We have one right now. He told us all the things we wanted to hear back in 2008. We don’t know who you are or where you’re going. We need someone that can actually get the job done, and you’ve talked about business,” Walker claimed.
Walker’s challenge worked to his advantage, as opposed to Paul’s, as he appeared to know which attack Trump would respond to him with—the Wisconsin budget.
“In Wisconsin, you’re losing $2.2 billion,” Trump shot back.
Walker responded, “Mr. Trump, you’re using the talking points of the Democrats.”
“No, facts,” Trump said.
Walker hit back, “It is working. We balanced a budget. You want to talk about balanced budgets. Four major projects over and over and over again. You can’t take America into bankruptcy. That’s what’s wrong with politicians in Washington. They think we can take a country into bankruptcy.”
Although Walker never specifically mentioned bankruptcies related to any of Trump’s businesses like other candidates did, Trump interpreted Walker’s remarks as such, saying he “never went bankrupt.”
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush first put up his dukes against Trump when asked by Tapper about Trump’s accusation that Bush was a puppet for his wealthy donors.
“No, absolutely not. People are supporting me because I have a proven record of conservative leadership where I cut taxes $19 billion over eight years. We shrunk that,” Bush said. “The one guy that had special interest that I know of that tried to get me to change my views on something — that was generous and gave me money — was Donald Trump. He wanted casino gambling in Florida.”
This accusation ticked off a “No, I didn’t / Yes, you did” back-and-forth between the two.
Some candidates, on the other hand, preferred to pivot away from Trump altogether, as opposed to either appeasing him or attacking him.
When Trump said that senators running for the presidency had a responsibility to do something about Syria’s Bashar Assad, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio responded, “I will tell you we have zero responsibility, because let’s remember what the president said. He said the attack he would conduct would be a pinprick. Well, the United States military was not build to conduct pinprick attacks.”
In fact, Rubio did not even refer to Trump when asked how his approach to Russian President Vladimir Putin would be different than that of Trump’s.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Dr. Ben Carson and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz did not go after Trump at all. Huckabee who told a joke in his introduction related to Trump being the GOP primary’s “Mr. T,” later said he did not want to attack anyone on the stage.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who has publicly taken shots at Paul in the past, was decidedly less bombastic and let Trump do the work for him. He did go after both Trump and Fiorina when both compared their business credentials.
Christie interrupted, “While I’m as entertained as anyone by this personal back-and-forth about the history of Carly’s career, the 55-year-old construction worker out in that audience tonight who doesn’t have a job… they could care less about their careers. They care about theirs.”
The New Jersey Republican, however, also kept out of the fray choosing to go after Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton. “We shouldn’t be fighting with each other. She’s the real opponent. She’s the real problem.”