Want more on the second Republican debate? Read these:
A lot has happened to Donald Trump since the first Republican debate in early August. He has dealt with the fallout of remarking on Carly Fiorina's face and, possibly, Megyn Kelly's menstruation cycle. He has moved further right on immigration, going so far as calling for the end of birthright citizenship. And he has sharpened his focus on rivals, including an ad that pointed out a sleepy Jeb Bush fan in the crowd.
But after observing him throughout the Trump mania that engulfed the summer news cycle, the field candidates have finally begun marking out their strategies on how to deal with, and finally combat, the billionaire businessman's electoral wrecking ball. As a result, the surprise frontrunner has seen his lead threatened, as contenders like Ben Carson and Fiorina seem to be finally making cracks in the Trump id.
So tonight, even with an (arguably) more structured approach to his campaign, Donald J. Trump entered the second debate with a stronger dose of reality. He was, without a doubt, the most targeted subject of the CNN moderator's questions. He was attacked on his most visible weakness—foreign policy—and pressed to own up to basically everything he's said on the campaign trail since the first debate.
But, for three hours straight, Trump was Trump, and nothing changed about that.
The first words he uttered—a pre-emptive attack against Rand Paul and his low ratings in the polls—set his tone for the night. He'd continue to release quick high-school jabs as other rivals assailed him. When Jeb Bush said Trump wanted to bring casino gambling to Florida, Trump said "wrong," and "More energy tonight, I like that." When Scott Walker was discussing his handling of Wisconsin, Trump said, "I can do so much better than that." Fiorina received constant eye-rolls as she went over her record as the CEO of Hewlett-Packard. He also told us a lot of vague things, most notably about our geopolitical status in the world—"I'd get along with Putin," and "I'm very militaristic"—and his campaign finance—"I refused $5 million from somebody."
In true Trump fashion, he implied numerous times that he was the best, the richest, that everything he touches turns to gold, just like his hair. He casually brushed off (read: didn't really respond to) lingering questions about Syria, his one-time support of Hillary Clinton, his calls for higher taxes on capital gains, and his quixotic role as a billionaire who has donated billions, but hates those who take those billions. He even said some crazy shit about vaccines being linked to autism, and how he made his kids take doses over time.
All of this, as we know, was expected. Yet what were perhaps the most Trump-ish exchanges came, of course, on the topic of women.
Right before a commercial break, CNN moderator Jake Tapper snuck in a question about Trump's controversial comments in a recent Rolling Stone profile where he was quoted as saying "Look at that face!" as well as "Would anyone vote for that?" in reference to Carly Fiorina. The former CEO responded gracefully, saying, "I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Trump said." Judging by the audience's response, it was the most well-received remark of the entire debate.
Trump, on the other hand, quickly turned into that frat dude who has to recover from calling a girl a bitch, but saying he meant it as a compliment. "I think she's got a beautiful face, and is a beautiful woman," he said, to crickets in the crowd.
Then, soon after, Trump was asked by Jeb Bush to apologize to his wife, Columba, for saying Bush has a "soft spot" on immigration because, you know, the love of his life is from the country that Trump has basically derided as being full of rapists and murderers. In lieu of an apology, Trump said "I hear your wife is a lovely woman."
But strangely enough, the candidates who spent the past month going after Trump remained relatively quiet when the moderators lobbed easy knock-out questions about him. No one truly came out swinging when he said "Arab name, Arab name" as his reason for not knowing major players in Iraq, and Ben Carson even gave him a (albeit weak) high-five at one point.
Overall, the Reagan Library crowd didn't give Trump's controversial remarks nearly the same applause that the Quicken Loans Arena did. His 'Make America Great Again' plea at the end of the debate sounded recycled, and you could almost hear boos when he dissed Bush's wife and Fiorina's track record.
But, as we should've expected, he told CNN's Chris Cuomo in the post-debate glow that his message hasn't changed since the first debate. In other words, even if the dose of reality that Trump was served this debate was real, and palpable, the Trump mantra stands: he doesn't care much at all.
Follow John Surico on Twitter.