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Trump Getting Greater Scrutiny as Rivals Step Up Attacks

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, right, speaks as Donald Trump, left, reacts and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush listens during the CNN Republican presidential candidates debate in Simi Valley, Calif., Sept. 16, 2015.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, right, speaks as Donald Trump, left, reacts and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush listens during the CNN Republican presidential candidates debate in Simi Valley, Calif., Sept. 16, 2015.

In the wake of the second Republican presidential debate, one thing seems apparent: The long, contentious battle that played out at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library on Wednesday marked a turning point in the 2016 race for the party's nomination.

For one thing, Donald Trump’s rivals lost their fear of attacking the billionaire. And for another, it’s becoming apparent that Trump’s act of focusing on generalities and braggadocio may be wearing thin and is starting to limit his support.

Trump’s problems seemed to compound after the debate as well. During a campaign rally Thursday in New Hampshire, Trump failed to correct a man who rose to ask a question with the premise that President Barack Obama was a Muslim and not an American citizen. Trump, who a few years ago was a prime mover of the so-called “birther” movement that questioned Obama’s birthplace and religion, did not dispute the questioner’s assertion and added, “We’re going to be looking at that and plenty of other things.”

Trump's refusal to correct the questioner has brought condemnation from both Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and White House spokesman Josh Earnest.

Rivals no longer afraid

During the debate in California there were flashes of Trump’s old self — the attacks on Kentucky Senator Rand Paul and Trump's refusal to apologize to Jeb Bush’s Mexican-born wife, Columba, for comments about her influence on her husband’s immigration views.

Unlike the first debate, however, Trump’s rivals fired some shots of their own. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker said the country did not need “an apprentice” in the White House, in a reference to a reality show that was hosted by Trump. Unfortunately for Walker, that was one of the few highlights for him in the debate.

Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who received strong reviews for his debate performance, suggested Trump was less than ready to be commander in chief. And for long periods of time when the other contenders were immersed in detailed foreign policy discussions, Trump either stood by in silence or offered bland generalities, such as his contention that he could find a way to work with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

In the wake of the first debate in Cleveland last month, Trump soared above the rest of the Republican contenders, his rise reflected in both national and key state polls. After his mixed performance in the second debate, however, there is a growing sense that his rivals have now pulled “The Donald” back down to Earth and into the noisy, messy rugby scrum that is the 2016 Republican presidential field.

Fiorina rising

The other headline out of the second debate was the continued rise of former business executive Carly Fiorina. She was the consensus choice of political pundits as the winner of the California debate, setting the stage for potential further growth in the polls and an increasing threat to both Trump and Ben Carson as the favorite political outsider among the Republican contenders.

A new poll by Morning Consult, a Washington business publication, found 29 percent of those surveyed thought Fiorina won the debate, followed by 24 percent who favored Trump. The poll also found that Trump continues to lead the Republican candiates with 36 percent, followed by Carson at 12 percent and Fiorina climbing to third place with 10 percent.

WATCH: VOA Correspondents Discuss the Debate:

Fiorina was sharp in urging congressional Republicans to push to defund Planned Parenthood in the wake of controversial undercover videos that featured discussions of fetal tissue research that offended many conservatives and even some Democrats. She also had perhaps the most effective put-down of Trump during the entire evening with her comment that every woman in the country “heard very clearly” what Trump had said when he insulted her appearance in a magazine interview and then tried to walk it back by saying he was talking about her “persona,” not her looks. Trump backed off his previous aggressive tone in a hurry. “She’s got a beautiful face and she’s a beautiful woman,” Trump said as Fiorina stared stonily straight ahead.

Rubio, Christie

In addition to Fiorina, Rubio scored well with the pundits with a number of strong responses on foreign policy issues. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie also emerged from relative obscurity in the debate with some pointed comments, including a shot at both Trump and Fiorina as they debated their respective business careers. Christie said most voters were much more concerned about their own economic plight than whether Trump or Fiorina could claim more success in the business sector. “I got to tell you the truth,” Christie interjected, “they [voters] could care less about your careers.”

The next Republican debate is set for October 28, so the candidates will be pressed between now and then to try to build on Wednesday's debate performances. In the meantime, one can expect more back and forth between Trump and Bush, more from Fiorina trying to build her national image, and more from other contenders like Paul, Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee and John Kasich, who have struggled to be relevant in the early months of a Republican campaign dominated by Trump.

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    Jim Malone

    Jim Malone has served as VOA’s National correspondent covering U.S. elections and politics since 1995. Prior to that he was a VOA congressional correspondent and served as VOA’s East Africa Correspondent from 1986 to 1990. Jim began his VOA career with the English to Africa Service in 1983.