When 23 million people have their eyes on the television, the stakes are high.
The Republican presidential candidates were offered yet another major opportunity in the road to the White House Wednesday night, a chance to jockey for a place in the spotlight and shake up the field.
We’ve seen debates tank the bids of some candidates -– like Rick Perry’s “oops” moment four years ago. And we’ve seen some ignite a spark in the campaigns of candidates like Carly Fiorina a month ago.
Here's how the second Republican debate from Wednesday night could shake up the 2016 field.
1. Carly Fiorina
BEFORE: As the only female candidate in the crowded GOP field, Fiorina was hoping to replicate her strong performance in the first undercard debate and use her outsider status to capitalize on widespread content among Republicans. Questions swirled about how whether sparks would fly when she went head-to-head (or face-to-face?) with Donald Trump.
AFTER: She nailed it. The former Hewlett-Packard CEO was passionate and articulate, not backing down to jabs from the frontrunner. “I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said,” she said stoically in response to Trump's earlier comments about her appearance. While Fiorina is sure to receive a boost from the debate, she hasn’t been able to top 5 percent yet in a national poll, so it’s unclear where the debate will leave her.
2. Donald Trump
BEFORE: It’s been smooth sailing for Trump so far this cycle, leading by double digits in most national polls and becoming the first candidate in the field to garner more than 30 percent support. But escalating attacks from candidates and new efforts from outside groups since the first debate may soon cause trouble, as neurosurgeon Ben Carson is quickly closing in.
AFTER: The Donald took a beating during the second debate from all sides in one of his weaker moments of the campaign so far. But it likely won’t prompt any kind of major drop in the polls. The brash billionaire’s supporters have not abandoned him despite several blunders and attacks up to this point. Still, the days of Trump “the frontrunner” may be numbered -– instead making Trump “one of the frontrunners,” thanks to a surging Ben Carson. It’s not clear whether Carly Fiorina’s likely rise –- particularly among women -– will come at Trump’s expense.
3. Ben Carson
BEFORE: Carson is climbing rapidly in the polls, feeding off Republican voters’ desire for an outsider with no elected experience. He has been particularly successful in the crucial first-in-the-nation caucus state of Iowa, where evangelical Christians and social conservatives hold sway.
AFTER: The soft-spoken doctor was often pushed to the sidelines during the debate. But his comments (or lack of comments) probably won’t change his fans’ support of him much or hamper his climb to the top. While some may see Carson as being low-energy, his supporters view him as measured and thoughtful. And they love it. It’s not clear yet whether Fiorina’s expected rise will slow Carson down.
4. Jeb Bush
BEFORE: The establishment favorite needed to claw his way back into contention. Like the first debate, Bush still flanked Trump, but he was quickly sinking in the polls. Instead of trailing Trump from second place by about 10 percentage points, Bush now trails Trump from third place by upwards of 20 points.
AFTER: Bush finally hit his stride after about two hours of debating, defending his brother and wife while apologizing to his mom for admitting to using marijuana in his youth. But was it too little too late? The establishment favorite had several spats with Trump, willing to take on the real estate mogul by mirroring the directness he’s used on the campaign trail. But to be sure, the former Florida Governor –- and his millions of Super PAC dollars –- are not going anywhere anytime soon. He’ll continue to be a major player in the months to come.
5. Marco Rubio
BEFORE: Marco Rubio is seen by some Republican insiders as an excellent general election candidate and major contender for the nomination -– despite his mediocre poll numbers –- because of his energy, youth and Hispanic heritage. The Florida Senator has been hovering in the mid-single digits in national polls, still awaiting a breakout moment.
AFTER: Rubio didn’t get that viral moment in this debate, but he delivered strong response after strong response, revealing his charisma and articulate oratory skills. He especially continued to show his strength on foreign policy. Rubio knows this campaign is a marathon and not a sprint, giving him months to break out from the middle of the pack. So for now, he aims to sustain his slow and steady climb toward becoming a viable nominee, banking on an upcoming day in the spotlight.
6. Scott Walker
BEFORE: A month ago, Walker was leading Iowa and neck-and-neck with Jeb Bush. But now, he’s collapsed, falling dramatically to 2 percent in the two latest national polls. It was important for Walker to prove he was still a force to be reckoned with in this debate.
AFTER: While the Wisconsin governor got off to a solid start, his comments were often drowned out by more lively and intense spats between Trump and others like Bush and Fiorina. While Walker likely won’t see a bump from the debate in national polls, he will continue his grassroots effort in Iowa to re-establish the footing he used to have there – and trying to resist claims that his time has come and gone.
7. The Rest
BEFORE: Some in the rest of the field –- like Mike Huckabee and Ted Cruz –- have middle-of-the-pack poll numbers, but desperately needed to broaden their support. The others –- Rand Paul, Chris Christie and John Kasich -– needed a spark to give themselves even a sliver of the spotlight dominated by the outsider frontrunners.
AFTER: Despite some strong performances from Ted Cruz and Chris Christie, the candidates needed a home run and may have gotten only a sacrifice fly. Mike Huckabee, Rand Paul and John Kasich had limited time and did not create strong moments that would prompt a major swing in the polls. RNC spokesperson Sean Spicer told CNN this morning that it’s possible the next debate will not have an undercard debate, which means it’s likely that some of these contenders will be fighting for their political lives a month from now.