In Marathon Debate, a Few Candidates Emerge From the Pack

NYT FDMAGGIE HABERMAN  Thursday, September 17, 2015

Screen Shot 2015-09-17 at 8.56.51 AMFifteen Republicans gathered in two debates, with the four lowest-polling candidates engaging in the so-called undercard debate, where foreign policy and exasperation at Donald J. Trump dominated the discussion, and with the remaining 11 fighting to be heard, to stand out next to Mr. Trump, and to distinguish themselves. A few of them did just that.

Clarity? What clarity?

After they spent nearly 180 minutes debating one another at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif., there were two clear winners in the sprawling Republican primary field.

Carly Fiorina and Senator Marco Rubio of Florida delivered their best performances by far. Mrs. Fiorina made the most of every question she was asked, and she seized the floor even when it wasn’t her turn. Mr. Rubio consistently answered foreign policy questions with ease.

Mr. Trump, whose performance had been eagerly anticipated, seemed to almost disappear from view at times. That may have been intentional, since Mr. Trump telegraphed early on that he was not sure-footed on one of the main topics of the evening, national security.

While he may not lose his supporters, he did not show he had the ability to grow.

Jeb Bush endured a painful first hour in which Mr. Trump seemed to get the better of him. He demanded, without success, that Mr. Trump apologize for mentioning his wife, who is from Mexico, in his caustic comments on immigration. But Mr. Bush recovered in the third block of the debate, delivering a strong response about his brother’s stewardship of the nation (without mentioning the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks) and, in a humanizing moment, acknowledged smoking marijuana in his youth, saying his mother was displeased that he was talking about it.

A few of the others had some highlights, too. Gov. John R. Kasich of Ohiosounded a measured tone on the Iran nuclear deal that most Republicans loathe, but at other points looked angry, even when he was in a split-screen shot. And Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey did well in the final hour, other than an off-note when he silenced Mrs. Fiorina.

Ben Carson, who rose in the polls after the Fox News debate last month, had some strong moments, but a tortured response on his view about the decision to go to war with Iraq didn’t help his case.

As for the rest, they mostly faded into the shadows of Mr. Reagan’s Air Force One plane behind them.