NEW YORK -- The image of Donald Trump standing on the deck of the USS Iowa on Tuesday, flanked by the battleship’s erect 16-inch guns, provided a obvious metaphor for the businessman’s presidential message -- the country has gone soft, he’ll reinvigorate its potency.
In the wake of Trump’s tanker-like campaign, the majority of his Republican rivals have looked flaccid and powerless, the property tycoon’s inflammatory rhetoric corralling millions of voters exhausted by a perceived lack of fight in their own party elites. Only former neurosurgeon Ben Carson, another political outsider, has gained significant ground.
Yet on Wednesday the GOP candidates will have a fresh chance to scupper the Trump ship at the second Republican primary debate. The event will be hosted by CNN and be held at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library outside Los Angeles.
Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally aboard the USS Iowa on September 15, 2015 in Los Angeles, California
At the first debate in Ohio in August, only Rand Paul dared confront the frontrunner, however the Kentucky Senator remains languishing in the polls. In the intervening weeks, Jeb Bush, irked by Trump’s constant goading of the former Florida governor as a “low energy person” bit back, highlighting the billionaire’s shaky history as a “conservative.” As an attack, it lacked venom, though Bush's campaign has warned: “Trump is going to see what low-energy looks like.”
The biggest threat for Trump at the debate comes from former Hewlett Packard executive Carly Fiorina, the only woman in the Republican race, with Trump open to accusations of sexism and bullying. At the first debate Trump was asked to defend calling women “fat pigs” by moderator Megyn Kelly; her reward for the question was to be publicly accused of menstruating.
More recently, Trump gave an interview to Rolling Stone in which he said of Fiorina: “Look at that face! Would anybody vote for that?” He added that listening to her voice gave him a “massive headache.”
Fiorina performed well at the first debate, so much so that she has been promoted (via good polling and a dubious decision by CNN) from the undercard in August to the main stage on Wednesday night. That makes it 11 Republicans candidates participating in the full debate, with four candidates forced to have a fatuous session before the Lord Mayor’s show.
If the undercard is a damp squib, a showdown between Trump and the hugely competent Fiorina would be box office, particularly as it provides watchers with a dry run for a possible future showdown between Trump and Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton should both win their respective party nominations.
On the campaign, Trump has shown little decorum thus far, be it to women, immigrants or Senator John McCain, whom he besmirched as "no war hero.” And he's likely to attack again, noting in a recent interview that Fiorina's "only got 3 percent in the polls, so in order to get recognition, I think she’ll start hitting me so she’s fair game.”
Fiorina responded to Trump’s jibe in Rolling Stone by suggesting she was “getting under his skin,” before rolling out an advert mocking Trump’s misogyny -- a tactic she may well employ on Wednesday.
Carly Fiorina speaks at the annual Seacoast Republican Women's chili festival Saturday, Sept. 12, 2015, in Stratham, New Hampshire
Unfortunately for Fiorina, Trump has promised to attack her business record. She was, after all, fired as the CEO of Hewlett Packard, dismissed by the board with a severance package of $21 million. And with the country’s fever running to disdain of the business elites as much as the political elites, it may well be Trump that fires the fatal shot.
The first session will feature former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, Governor of Louisiana Bobby Jindal, former New York Governor George Pataki and Senator Lindsey Graham.
The second session will boast Trump, Carson, Bush, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, Kentucky Senator Paul, Ohio Governor John Kasich, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Fiorina.