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Over 3 Hours, GOP Rivals Try To Chip Away At Trump's Dominance

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

There was a time when some Republican presidential candidates did not want to attack Donald Trump. Why give him the attention? That time is long gone. Trump gets so much TV air time there are not many other ways for the other candidates to get attention.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Last night Trump, nine other men and one woman mounted a stage. It had been placed before an old model Air Force One at the Reagan Presidential Library in California.

INSKEEP: And the candidates took every chance they got to chip away at Trump's oversized presence in the race. Here's NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: A debate that lasted a full three hours should have given the candidates plenty of time to get deep into policy. But that's not what happened last night. The CNN moderators made it clear they wanted a kind of steel cage match, and that's what they got. They encouraged the candidates to confront each other - mostly Donald Trump - directly. Jeb Bush had the most at stake. He was under pressure from nervous donors to show he was tough enough to take on Trump, and last night he was more aggressive, rejecting Trump's suggestion that he was a puppet of his campaign donors.

(SOUNDBITE OF CNN REPUBLICAN DEBATE)

JEB BUSH: The one guy that had some 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.

DONALD TRUMP: I did not.

BUSH: Yes, you did.

TRUMP: Totally false.

BUSH: You wanted it, and you didn't get it because I was opposed to casino gambling before...

TRUMP: I promise I would've gotten it.

BUSH: ...during and after. And that's not - I'm not going to be bought by anybody.

TRUMP: I promise if I wanted it, I would've gotten it.

BUSH: No way, man.

JAKE TAPPER: Is there anything else you want to say about this?

TRUMP: No. I just will tell you that the donors, the special interests, the lobbyists have very strong power over these people.

LIASSON: Bush has been Trump's biggest target all summer. Trump has all but insulted Bush's manhood, needling him over and over again for having, quote, "low-energy." Last night, Trump brought up what could be Bush's biggest weakness, his last name.

(SOUNDBITE OF CNN REPUBLICAN DEBATE)

TRUMP: Your brother and your brother's administration gave us Barack Obama.

BUSH: You know what? As it relates to my brother, there's one thing I know for sure. He kept us safe.

(APPLAUSE)

BUSH: I don't know if you remember - Donald.

TRUMP: I don't know. Do you feel safe right now? I don't feel so safe.

LIASSON: Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker is another candidate whose support has cratered as Trump has defied the laws of political gravity. Walker's strategy was to reassert himself by attacking Trump.

(SOUNDBITE OF CNN REPUBLICAN DEBATE)

SCOTT WALKER: You want to talk about balanced budgets? You took four major projects into bankruptcy over and over and over again. You can't take America into bankruptcy.

TRUMP: When the folks of Iowa found out the true facts of the job that you've done in Wisconsin, all of a sudden you tubed (ph). He was number one. Now he's number six or seven in the polls.

LIASSON: But the candidate who had the most success putting Trump on the defensive was the only woman in the field - former Hewlett-Packard CEO, Carly Fiorina. In a recent magazine interview, Trump had disparaged her appearance, saying, look at that face - would anyone vote for that?

(SOUNDBITE OF CNN REPUBLICAN DEBATE)

CARLY FIORINA: I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said.

(APPLAUSE)

TRUMP: I think she's got a beautiful face. And I think she's a beautiful woman.

LIASSON: The crowd cheered Fiorina, but didn't react much to Trump's comeback. The audience was relatively small - just about 350 people, and they were not inclined to support Trump. Other candidates chose different ways of dealing with the front-runner. Sen. Ted Cruz praised Trump's focus on illegal immigration. Ohio Gov. John Kasich chose to stay above the fray.

(SOUNDBITE OF CNN REPUBLICAN DEBATE)

JOHN KASICH: If I were sitting at home watching this back and forth, I'd be inclined to turn it off. I think it's important we get to the issues 'cause that's what the people want...

TAPPER: We are getting to the issues, sir. Thank you.

KASICH: ...And they don't want all this fighting.

LIASSON: Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson who is now in second place just behind Trump in some polls stuck to his low-key, soft-spoken approach refusing to engage Trump directly.

(SOUNDBITE OF CNN REPUBLICAN DEBATE)

BEN CARSON: I, in no way, am willing to get into bed with special interest groups or lick the boots of billionaires.

LIASSON: The rise of Trump has flummoxed the GOP establishment. Increasing numbers of Republicans - 39 percent in the latest New York Times CBS poll - now say Trump is their best shot at winning the White House. And some of the other candidates who are close to losing the support they need to continue in the race, tried to borrow a bit of Trump's appeal. Here's Chris Christie answering a question about why the outsiders in this race are doing so well.

(SOUNDBITE OF CNN REPUBLICAN DEBATE)

CHRIS CHRISTIE: As far as being an outsider is concerned, let me tell you this, Jake - I am a Republican in New Jersey. I wake up every morning as an outsider. I wake up every morning with a Democratic legislature who's trying to beat my head in and fight me because I'm trying to bring conservative change to a state that needed it desperately.

LIASSON: Marco Rubio's strategy appears to be to hang back and wait for other candidates to fade, so he didn't take on Trump directly either. Instead he made an implicit jab at Trump's just-trust-me approach to foreign policy and touted his own foreign-policy expertise.

(SOUNDBITE OF CNN REPUBLICAN DEBATE)

MARCO RUBIO: I have an understanding of exactly what it is Russia and Putin are doing, and it's pretty straight forward. He wants to reposition Russia once again as a geopolitical force.

LIASSON: Rubio asked the moderators to push Trump to have a deeper debate about foreign-policy. Trump suggested that wasn't necessary.

(SOUNDBITE OF CNN REPUBLICAN DEBATE)

TRUMP: I will know more about the problems of this world by the time I sit. And you look at what's going on in this world right now by people that supposedly know, this world is a mess.

LIASSON: If this was a typical campaign, right about now Republican voters would be getting over their summer infatuations with outsiders like Trump and Carson and turning to candidates who are more probable nominees. But this race has been anything but typical. Still, Trump was not as dominant last night as he was in the first debate, and that could change the dynamic of the Republican contest. Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.