Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during the CNN Republican presidential debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley, Calif., Sept. 16, 2015.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during the CNN Republican presidential debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley, Calif., Sept. 16, 2015.

Republican presidential candidates took aim at frontrunner Donald Trump, and succeeded in landing some blows on the real estate mogul, according to analysts, during a contentious, second debate of the campaign season Wednesday.

Trump, whose poll numbers have been on the rise for the past two months, was on the defensive for much of the night as he stood center stage among 10 of his rivals during the marathon, three-hour debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California.

Among the most notable moments was a feisty exchange with ex-Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, who took a swing at Trump for earlier making disparaging comments about her physical appearance.

Watch video report from VOA's Jim Malone:

"Women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said," Fiorina declared calmly, prompting an embarrassed, blushed expression from the billionaire businessman and reality television star.

"I think she's got a beautiful face and that she is a beautiful woman," Trump responded - in what appeared to be an uncharacteristically sheepish moment for a man who has repeatedly hurled personal insults at his political opponents.

Fiorina 'clear winner'

That moment helped make Fiorina the "clear winner" of the debate, according to Republican strategist Ron Bonjean, who said Fiorina "drew blood with Donald Trump and actually scored points."

"She beat him in an argument, which Republican candidates have been unable to do," Bonjean told VOA. "Trump has never conceded and never backed down in argument, and this time he did."


Republican presidential candidates, former New Yor
Republican presidential candidates, former New York Gov. George Pataki, left, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, second from left, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, second from right, and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., take the stage in the early CNN Republ

The real estate tycoon also appeared to hold back during a segment of the debate in which his rivals discussed foreign policy. Trump has been reluctant to offer concrete details on his foreign policy views after making several recent miscues.

Jeb embraces brother?

Another significant moment came during an exchange between Trump and ex-Florida Governor Jeb Bush. After Bush questioned Trump's foreign policy credentials, Trump hit back, turning the attention on the record of Bush's older brother, ex-President George W. Bush.

“Your brother’s administration gave us Barack Obama because it was such a disaster those last three months that Abraham Lincoln couldn’t have been elected," said Trump, referring to the 16th president of the U.S., who was also a Republican.

“There is one thing I know for sure," responded Bush. "He (George W. Bush) kept us safe." The statement drew perhaps the most thunderous applause of the evening from the crowd.

FILE - Republican presidential candidate Donald Tr
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, center, greets supporter after speaking at a campaign event in Los Angeles, Sept. 15, 2015.

Until now, Jeb Bush has appeared to often be reluctant to invoke the record of his brother. But the moment could signal a shift in strategy for the Bush campaign, said political analyst Rhodes Cook.

"It was instructive - what line gets the strongest applause. And that line of his certainly did," he told VOA. "So I think when it comes to national security issues, you might see Jeb Bush embracing his brother more."

The strategy is risky, since George W. Bush and his war in Iraq are still very controversial to the general public, says Jack Pitney, a professor at Claremont McKenna College and expert on Republican Party politics.

The audience prepares for the start of the CNN Rep
The audience prepares for the start of the CNN Republican presidential debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley, California, Sept. 16, 2015.

"Running on his record is probably not a great way to secure victory in November," Pitney told VOA in a phone interview. "But Republicans tend to close ranks when one of their own is under attack, and a lot of Republicans saw that as an attack on the Bush record and the Republican record."

Bush 'coherent, strong'

Bush, who is a favorite of many establishment Republicans, looked "strong and coherent" and gave a much better performance than in the previous debate, according to Pitney.

He also said he expects Fiorina to see a "significant increase" in support following the debate.

Another standout, according to many analysts, was Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who suggested the country cannot risk electing a foreign policy novice like Trump as president during "these extraordinarily dangerous times.''

Will debate damage Trump?

Also fighting for time in the debate spotlight were Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, Texas Senator Ted Cruz, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, Ohio Governor John Kasich, ex-Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson.  Carson has been polling second in recent opinion surveys.

With many of the presidential contenders landing blows on Trump, analysts will now be watching closely to see if it will negatively affect the frontrunner's standing in the polls. Some are skeptical it will make much of a difference, citing Trump's unexpected resiliency in responding to past gaffes.

"He's been riding high here now for about two months and nobody would have foreseen that," said Cook. "So it's hard to tell, if you haven't been able to foresee this already or you've not experienced this type of candidacy before."

U.S. Republican Presidential Candidates for 2016