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In Debate 2, Expect Trump To Be In The Crosshairs

Republican presidential candidates (from left) Scott Walker, Donald Trump, Jeb Bush and Mike Huckabee take the stage for the first Republican presidential debate.
Andrew Harnik
Republican presidential candidates (from left) Scott Walker, Donald Trump, Jeb Bush and Mike Huckabee take the stage for the first Republican presidential debate.

Howard Dean didn't just go away in 2004. And it wasn't "The Scream" that did him in. Remember, that came in his speech after losing the Iowa caucuses.

It took Democratic candidates attacking him on the campaign trail and in debates to bring concerns about his record — and whether he could win — to the forefront for Democratic voters.

"The reason I knew I was the front-runner is because I keep picking buckshot out of my rear end all the time," Dean said in a November 2003 debate after being attacked on guns, principally by John Kerry, who went on to win the nomination.

Fast forward to 2015, and there's a similar situation playing out on the Republican side of the aisle with Donald Trump.

A lot has changed in the month since the first Republican presidential debate. Trump continues to lead the Republican primary field with an even bigger lead despite — or perhaps because of — even more controversy.

The onetime front-runners, Jed Bush and Scott Walker, have slipped to the back of the pack.

Outsiders have surged — Ben Carson is consistently in second place, and Carly Fiorina qualified for Wednesday's top-tier debate stage on CNN.

But perhaps the most notable change ahead of Wednesday's debate is the number of Republican rivals willing to attack Trump.

He has been in a high-profile back and forth with Bush. He drew the ire of the low-key Carson after Trump questioned his energy (in response to Carson questioning Trump's faith). He's called Walker a "failed governor."

And after it came out in a Rolling Stone article that Trump wondered who would vote for someone with a "face" like Fiorina's, Fiorina — the only woman in the race on the GOP side — hit back.

"Ladies, look at this face," Fiorina said to big applause in Phoenix at the National Federation of Republican Women. "This is the face of a 61-year-old woman. I am proud of every year and every wrinkle."

She won that event's straw poll, and then cut an ad off the moment.

In the first debate Aug. 6, Republicans thought they could ignore Trump. They thought he was just a no-strings-attached summer fling who would implode under the weight of his controversial statements, that perhaps his past not-so-conservative history would catch up with him — and they didn't want to offend his supporters.

They were wrong.

The only one who did attack Trump on the main stage that night was Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, and he was summarily dismissed by Trump as "having a bad night." The candidates who most wanted to take him on were in that "cocktail-hour debate," and one of them already dropped out. (Texas Gov. Rick Perry suspended his campaign Friday.)

That's going to be different this time, so expect it won't just be the moderators Trump has to contend with.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit

Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.
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