Since nothing seems to have worked in attempts to stop Donald Trump, his rivals tried a new strategy at the second Republican debate: everything.
It didn’t make Trump go away, and nothing is likely to have happened that would make his growing support suddenly crater.
But Trump faded for long stretches -– and seemed more vulnerable than he did at the first debate, in front of a far-more raucous crowd. A tuned-in public saw a frontrunner with limitations in sharp view -– and who seemed to meet his match in the only female candidate in the field.
The pile-on started early, when Rand Paul said he wouldn’t want “someone like that in charge of the nuclear arsenal,” and called Trump a junior-high bully who calls people “short, tall, fat, ugly.” Scott Walker piled on to say Trump was using Democratic talking points, and suggested he would “take a country into bankruptcy.”
Jeb Bush found a new line of attack for the man who is defining outsider status: He called him an insider who pushed a “special interest” in Florida. He also called on Trump to apologize to his wife. (He didn’t.)
Trump seemed so eager to find an ally that, midway through the debate, he awkwardly reached toward Carson, for a botched handshake/semi-fist-bump shared over opposition to the Iraq war.
In perhaps the debate’s most memorable moment, Carly Fiorina did the unfathomable –- winning a, well, face-off with a chastened Trump, even after he backtracked to call her a “beautiful woman.”
Trump wasn’t quite neutralized, but he somehow didn’t dominate.
Trump denied, insulted, and attacked right back. While now praising her looks, he called Fiorina a “catastrophe” as a CEO.
“She can’t run any of my companies –- that I can tell you,” he said.
But Trump also continued to not fully answer foreign policy questions, and he was forced into policy debates where his lack of depth was put on uncomfortable display. (Trump: “Arab name, Arab name...”)
The attacks may have been too diffuse -– and dotted over too many hours -- to be effective by themselves. Others played another game entirely -– Marco Rubio seeking a stride on foreign policy, John Kasich appealing to those who don’t want “all the fighting.”
Chris Christie chided Trump and Fiorina for a “childish back and forth,” arguing that voters who are struggling “could care less about your careers.”
But after a public tussle with the female moderator at the last debate, Fiorina got the better of Trump.
She handled his personal and professional attacks. She added another emotional high point on an issue where most of the field agrees -- defunding Planned Parenthood -– in addition to sharing her family tragedy connected to drug abuse.
She also managed to work in a frequently used campaign line about her ability to take on Hillary Clinton.
Before Republicans can get there, there’s the still-volatile primary. Trump remains center stage, figuratively and literally. No one will be as loud or as “braggadocious,” and he’s unlikely to ever earn the Secret Service name he volunteered for himself: “humble."
For a night, though, Trump seemed to come down to earth – just maybe bound by the laws of political gravity he’s defied to date.