Did rivals put a dent in Trump’s frontrunner status?

Candidates take aim at The Donald at second GOP debate


This is a rush transcript from "Journal Editorial Report," September 19, 2015. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

PAUL GIGOT, HOST: This week on the "Journal Editorial Report," the Republican White House hopefuls square off in their second presidential debate with much of the fire aimed at Donald Trump. Did his rivals put a dent in his front-runner status?

And with foreign policy taking center stage, which candidates established their commander-in-chief credentials.

All that, plus our panel's take on the break-out moments, the missed opportunities, and where the campaign goes from here.

But first, these headlines.


GIGOT: Welcome to the "Journal Editorial Report." I'm Paul Gigot.

The Republican presidential hopefuls squared off this week in the second debate of the 2016 campaign season. While there were 11 candidates on the main stage at the Reagan Library Wednesday, most had a common goal, taking on front-runner, Donald Trump.


GOV. SCOTT WALKER, R-WIS., PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Mr. Trump, we don't need an apprentice in the White House. We don't need an apprentice in the White House. We have one right now.

JEB BUSH, R-PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: The one guy that had some special interests 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.

CARLY FIORINA, R-PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said.



GIGOT: Joining the panel this week, "Wall Street Journal" columnist and deputy editor, Dan Henninger; editorial board member, Dorothy Rabinowitz; assistant editorial page editor, James Freeman; and Washington columnist, Kim Strassel.

So, Kim, let's start with you. You saw everybody trying to take on Donald Trump. Did they succeed in taking him down a peg?

KIM STRASSEL, WASHINGTON COLUMNIST: Yeah. The unexpected benefit of having Donald Trump in this race is that he's forcing all of his rivals to up their game, and they did. He wants the race to continue to be about his personality and some bluster and blather. They came in very determined to instead highlight his weaknesses as a presidential candidate. They scored some points. You had Fiorina highlighting his temperament --

GIGOT: Right.

STRASSEL: -- and also lack of knowledge on things like the 14th Amendment. You had Bush highlighting his record as a Democrat and his views in the past. You had Marco Rubio really highlighting his utter lack of knowledge on foreign policy.

GIGOT: We're going to get --


STRASSEL: So he didn't do good there.

GIGOT: We'll do that. Who was the most effective, James, in terms of taking on Trump? My own view rule is it was Carly Fiorina. She didn't let him get under her skin at all. She used his words against him.

JAMES FREEMAN, ASSISTANT EDITORIAL PAGE EDITOR: She landed a haymaker on the response to his comment about her looks. Also for herself, I think she showed an amazing knowledge, encyclopedic knowledge of the military beyond the other candidates. I think she did well. But I think almost the entire field did well, but I don't -- except for Mr. Trump. But the blather and bluster Kim mentioned, I think that's his standard shtick. He doesn't say a lot of things of substance. He gives the business to the other candidates. And some people may continue to want that.

GIGOT: Let's take a look at another exchange between Jeb Bush and Donald Trump.



TRUMP: Your brother and his administration gave us Barack Obama because it was such a disaster those last three months that Abraham Lincoln could not have been elected.

BUSH: You know what? As it relates to my brother, there is one thing I know for sure, he kept us safe. I don't know if you remember --



DAN HENNINGER, COLUMNIST & DEPUTY EDITOR: This was an important moment. Because after Jeb Bush said that Trump said, do you feel safe right now, and Scott Walker immediately jumped in and said, "Mr. Trump, you are talking about Barack Obama. His brother did keep us safe." Then later, Chris Christie, when talking about 9/11, in a way that could have been maudlin, was pretty moving and strong. At the end of it said, "I was proud to serve with George W. Bush."

In a way, it was the party coming together not only to defend Jeb Bush against Donald Trump but the previous president, his brother.

GIGOT: I agree with that.

I also thought the earlier exchange, Dorothy, between Trump and Bush where Bush asked Trump to apologize to his wife was not as effective for Bush. Trump did what he does, he refused. Bush kind of sloughed away without taking a firm stance. That's what Trump does. You can't make a statement depending upon his response because he could say anything.

DOROTHY RABINOWITZ, EDITORIAL BOARD MEMBER: Yes. All lawyers know never ask a question you don't know the answer to.


You knew there would be no apology. But let's back track to the earlier encounter with Carly Fiorina. When she said the American people heard him --


GIGOT: American women.

RABINOWITZ: American women, yes -- you could hear, in the applause, in addition to the women, a very clear male sound, male whistles, applause. That should give pause to Donald Trump. There was such a unanimity of response between the genders of this assault.

GIGOT: Kim, now if Carly Fiorina does rise in the polls after this, what are challenges she faces going forward?


GIGOT: Let me ask, first, what's her appeal? Why is she breaking through?

STRASSEL: Well, she's -- well, first of all, she's incredibly articulate. Clearly, an incredibly hard worker. I mean, talk about debate prep. This woman was so polished up there on stage. She knew the answer to every question. She was very clear on her thoughts. I think one of her appeals, too, is that she's not a woman running for president. She is a strong leader running for president who happens to be a woman. That's a new thing for the GOP to have someone like that. She does it very well. She looks very serious. She knows her stuff. She's not saying to people, elect me because I'm a woman. She's saying, elect me because I'll be good in the job. She's trying to prove she has the chops to do it.

GIGOT: I would argue, Dorothy, that she also -- she's going to face some challenges. She has to defend her business record. Donald Trump went after her on that. You will see more of that if she rises in the polls.

RABINOWITZ: Yes. I think that's going to be true. I do believe she'll come out swinging quite effectively. In addition to what she says, which is very cogent and eloquent, there is the way she says it. There is that manner, that enormously impressive silence and control. No wonder we sat there calling it the Margaret Thatcher, Margaret Thatcher.

GIGOT: All right, Dorothy, wow, Margaret, now that's a comparison.


When we come back, foreign policy comes to the fore as the GOP candidates tackle the challenges in the Middle East and beyond. Who got the upper hand in Wednesday's showdown?


GIGOT: Foreign policy took center stage in Wednesday night's debate, with Vladimir Putin's recent moves in Syria prompting this exchange between Donald Trump and Florida Senator Marco Rubio.


JAKE TAPPER, DEBATE MODERATOR: What would you do right now if you were president to get the Russians out of Syria?

TRUMP: I would talk to him. I would get along with him. I may be wrong, and I would probably have to take a different path, but I would get along with a lot of world leaders this country isn't getting along with.

SEN. MARCO RUBIO, R-FLA., PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Here's what you're going to see in the next few weeks. The Russians will begin to fly combat Russians in the region not just targeting ISIS but to prop up Assad. He will then turn to other countries in the region and say, America is no longer a reliable ally, Egypt, American is no longer a reliable ally, Saudi Arabia, begin to rely on us. What he is doing is trying to replace us as the single most-important power broker in the Middle East. This president is allowing it.


GIGOT: Dan, who got the better of that exchange?

HENNINGER: You're asking me?


Look, this is why Donald Trump lost ground in the debate. Marco Rubio was showing you what the political big leagues look like. Donald Trump was showing you what it means to come out of the political minor leagues. If you are going to be on stage -- I mean, he got into this thing talking mainly about immigration. But you are in a debate, you've got to talk about at least five or six major issues and be prepared. Almost all the candidates, including Carly Fiorina, who is another, quote/unquote, "outsider" candidate, but she did her homework on foreign policy, and it came through and he didn't come through.

GIGOT: Dorothy, it's an audition to be commander-in-chief.

RABINOWITZ: That's right.

GIGOT: You ought to have some familiarity with hot spots of the world. Donald Trump didn't show that. Whereas, I thought Marco Rubio showed remarkable fluency on foreign policy.


GIGOT: We have heard this from him many times over the years. He does understand the issues. He has a capacity to put them in succinct terms.

RABINOWITZ: Yes. There is a difference between doing their homework, which is good enough, and having lived this stuff all your life. Marco Rubio has invested in this study, has been a part of this feeling. He's been a life long student of politics and our place in the world. This shows. This shows in the quickness and fluidity of his answers. I might add that calling him the minor league of Donald Trump is really praise far too great.


GIGOT: On foreign policy, Dorothy.


GIGOT: Let's listen to a bite of Carly Fiorina on the same subject.


FIORINA: What I would do is begin rebuilding the Sixth Fleet. I would begin rebuilding the missile defense program in Poland. I would conduct regular aggressive military exercises in the Baltic States. I'd probably send a few thousand more troops into Germany. Vladimir Putin would get the message.


GIGOT: Kim, you have written that a woman candidate like Fiorina has to speak in this level of detail, whereas maybe a man would not. Why do you say that?

STRASSEL: Well, because the American public is used to men being president. They assume most people who put themselves out there generally are familiar with the military. They understand how things run. They have doubts with women about that. So Fiorina's decision to go up there and be very, very specific about what she would do and, in fact, be specific about elements of the military and how big it needed to be and talk about the Sixth Fleet, it was all designed to reassure people that she, as a woman, could be an effective commander-in-chief. I think it was effective.

GIGOT: What about Trump, James? Our colleagues here are very critical of him on foreign policy on a level of detail. Is there something effective about the quality where he says, look, I'm a big enough guy to talk to them, I will get them down and negotiate with them, and I never lose a deal, and they know they have to take me with respect. Does that -- that seems to be working with some voters.

FREEMAN: Certainly. And this is why I wouldn't assume, even though he may have gotten crushed on substance, that he has a huge polling decline now, because what you saw in that exchange with Rubio is certainly Marco Rubio has studied more, but you saw from Rubio a very formal, some might say rehearsed, political presentation. You saw from Trump more of a shoot- from-the-hip, informal, casual conversational style. I'm not talking about substance here. He has an ability to communicate that a lot of other people on stage haven't reached yet.

HENNINGER: But the answer on Putin was hard to understand what he was saying. When you put the cloud in people's head, I think you suffer.

GIGOT: He said, I'll talk to Putin, we'll get along, until we don't.


GIGOT: If we don't, then I have plan B. He didn't say what it was. He didn't do any analysis. What is Putin thinking and what does he want? Is it a threat to our interest or not? He reduces it to a mano-a-mano foreign policy, which is never really --



RABINOWITZ: -- the mystery to Donald Trump. What we have never plumbed the mysteries of is the issue of his supporters. They, in the end, are the great mystery.

GIGOT: Well, and that mystery will be unfolding as we continue to go along.

When we come back, with another debate behind us, a look at where the campaign goes from here. So did this week's performances change the Republican race in a fundamental way? Our panel's thoughts after the break.



GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE, R-N.J., PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: The question is, who's going to prosecute Hillary Clinton. The Obama White House seems to have no interest. The Justice Department seems to have no interest. I think it's time to put a former federal prosecutor on the same stage as Hillary Clinton. And I will prosecute her during the debates on the stage for the record that we are talking about here.



GIGOT: New Jersey Governor Chris Christie training his fire Wednesday night at Democratic front-runner, Hillary Clinton.

So, James, did Chris Christie give himself a new hearing with voters after that performance?

FREEMAN: He did. I think that's perhaps the best argument for Chris Christie, the former prosecutor. He knows how to make a case. He wants to make it in a debate with Hillary Clinton. Obviously he's, unlike some of the other candidates, he has an issue of his record. He doesn't have the great reform record that some of the other governors have. And what you were seeing in this debate -- and he asserted himself a little more than the first one -- is he can make a case. I think, at that moment, a lot of voters probably like the idea of him on the stage with Hillary going over the e-mail issues.

GIGOT: Dan, what about Bush? A lot people said before the debate that he needed to assert himself more, and he did, but I would argue with mixed results. He won a couple of exchanges, especially towards the latter half of the debate, but I thought not as well at the front.

HENNINGER: Yeah, exactly to your point about the latter. He did this in the first debate, too. He seemed to gain strength as he goes through these debates and actually finishes strong. So I think Jeb Bush accomplished what he needed to. He stood up to Donald Trump. He's establishing a basis for a long ground game running into the primaries. So I think he's about where he'd like to be.

GIGOT: And Ben Carson, he was second in the polls, Dorothy and yet, kind of had a flat performance by most accounts. That's what I thought. He looked restrained, kind of a certain vagueness to some of his answers. Did he help or hurt himself?

RABINOWITZ: Yes. Well, he hurt himself. You could say flatter than he was before. But he was flat before, and I think the more people are exposed to him. When you get something as vague as his key point, which is we don't want to be run by the government, let the people run their business. This is the kind of talk that he turns out, is his major program. What is he saying?


GIGOT: What do you think he's saying? I think he's saying I'm an outsider, the one who will shake up Washington. That's the message.

RABINOWITZ: Yes, that's the message.

GIGOT: He doesn't really mean the man in the street is going to run it, as Andrew Jackson let everybody in the country through the White House. I mean --


RABINOWITZ: Yes, he doesn't push back against this nonsense about vaccinations. He allows this assault on vaccinations. Well, you know, I'm for them, but, you know, there's another reason for this. He does this several times in several cases. Oh, these 10.5 million people who may be deported, I think there's room to talk about that. That is what he said.


Kim, did anybody else breakthrough for you, strike you as making an important impression?

STRASSEL: No. I think actually, though, one different way to look at this is not even who's made an impression. All those people we just named did. What's happening in this race in my mind is that Republican voters aren't necessarily choosing who they want to be the nominee. What they're doing, whether they know it or not, is deciding who they don't want to see in this race anymore. All the candidates knew that, which is why you saw them up there all being so aggressive, all trying to have a break-out moment. Some of them didn't manage to do that. So I think it was a tough night for guys like Rand Paul, Mike Huckabee, John Kasich, who didn't really have any memorable moments or lines. They've got donors that are going to be worried about this. I think you'll start to see some people start to drop out.

GIGOT: Dan, did Scott Walker make an impression? He needed to, as Kim said, break through. Did he show anything to you?

HENNINGER: He showed more than he did in the first debate. I think he was competitive in this debate. It was a very difficult format with the CNN running everything through Donald Trump. All of those candidates, and there were a lot of them on that stage --


GIGOT: A blatant play for ratings, by the way.

HENNINGER: Absolutely.

GIGOT: And just -- and not helpful to the general --


HENNINGER: But the candidate had to seize the moment when they got it. Most -- I don't think Rand Paul did such a good job. Mike Huckabee did, talking about religious liberty. I think Walker did as well.

GIGOT: John Kasich, James, I thought he did well in the first debate. This time, there was -- I get the impression that, in some ways, he was running a little too aggressively against the current Republican Party, rather than against Hillary Clinton and the Democrats. I'm not sure that's the way to get the nomination and break out in this field, where a lot of Republican voters are so frustrated.

FREEMAN: Well, his general theme is, I'm a Republican but I have a heart. And I think that's offensive to --


GIGOT: Unlike all of us, by the way.



GIGOT: We're not Republicans and we don't have hearts.

FREEMAN: But he -- I don't know if this is going to sell. I certainly understand how it can sell the Democrats and maybe some Independents. But I think it may be an issue for Republicans, who really feel like conservatism is the philosophy that does the most for the poor, for everyone all around the world. I think that's a tough challenge for him.

GIGOT: All right, James, thank you.

Thank you, all.

We have to take one more break. When we come back, "Hits and Misses" of the week.


GIGOT: Time now for "Hits and Misses" of the week.

Kim, start us off.

STRASSEL: A miss to Texas Senator John Cornyn for his call for a special prosecutor to look into Hillary Clinton server. Paul we're only start to figure out what happened with Mrs. Clinton's emails and only because we have courts that are processing Freedom of Information Requests and an FBI that's felt under pressure to take this seriously. You appoint a special prosecutor, that all comes to an end. This goes underground. The pressure comes off the FBI and the courts. And this could possibly take years with no information. The American people deserve to know how Hillary Clinton thinks of classified information before they go to vote for her in the polls.

GIGOT: Hear, hear, Kim.


FREEMAN: This is a miss, Paul, to the Federal Reserve. Seven years after the financial crisis, they insist on continuing emergency monetary policy. And this is after a research report from within their own Federal Reserve System said that their policies have not worked anywhere, ever.


GIGOT: All right. So you want to get off zero. How high do want interest rates to go, James?

FREEMAN: I think they can go much higher. But a quarter point is a reasonable start. We can all keep borrowing money, believe it or not. The world will go on.

GIGOT: All right.


HENNINGER: Paul, the Obama economy got a big miss this week, as the Census Bureau reported, that median household income in 2014 is unchanged as 2013. Basically, it's down 6.5 percent since 2007. What's even more troublesome is that income mobility in 2014 hardly moved. People are not moving up the income ladder. We're living in a static economy. This, more than anything accounts for the anger voters are expressing out there.

GIGOT: All right, Dan.

And remember, if you have your own hit or miss, be sure to tweet it to us @jeronfnc.

That's it for this week's show. Thanks to my panel and especially to all of you for watching. I'm Paul Gigot. Hope to see you right here next week.


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