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Policy focus wins the debate

| Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2015, 10:48 p.m.
Republican presidential candidate, businesswoman Carly Fiorina speaks during the CNN Republican presidential debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum on Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2015, in Simi Valley, Calif. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Republican presidential candidate, businesswoman Carly Fiorina speaks during the CNN Republican presidential debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum on Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2015, in Simi Valley, Calif. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Republican U.S. presidential candidate New Jersey Governor Chris Christie speaks during the second official Republican presidential candidates debate of the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, United States, September 16, 2015. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
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Republican U.S. presidential candidate New Jersey Governor Chris Christie speaks during the second official Republican presidential candidates debate of the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, United States, September 16, 2015. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
Republican presidential candidates, from left, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, businessman Donald Trump, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, businesswoman Carly Fiorina, and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, appear during the CNN Republican presidential debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum on Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2015, in Simi Valley, Calif.
Republican presidential candidates, from left, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, businessman Donald Trump, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, businesswoman Carly Fiorina, and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, appear during the CNN Republican presidential debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum on Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2015, in Simi Valley, Calif.

SIMI VALLEY, Calif. — Along with the back-and-forth bickering over Donald Trump, the Republican primary took a substantive and serious turn in Wednesday's prime-time debate, with candidates wrangling over Russia, Iran, immigration and gay marriage.

The policy focus marked a shift for a campaign that has so far revolved around the rise of Trump. The brash billionaire was still a target for the 10 other candidates joining him on stage, but the heavier policy focus had the effect of temporarily sidelining Trump after the debate's opening moments.

The policy debates exposed rifts within the Republican Party, particularly the split between political outsiders and candidates with long resumes in Washington and governor's mansions. Trump and Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard executive and only woman in the GOP field, emphasized how their business backgrounds would help them negotiate with difficult world leaders, including Russia's president.

“Vladimir Putin would get the message,” said Fiorina, who was joining the main debate for the first time after a strong performance in an undercard event last month.

Trump, who has capitalized on his outsider appeal, said the three senators in the field — Marco Rubio, Rand Paul and Ted Cruz — bore some responsibility for the unabated violence in Syria. He said as president, he would have gone in with “tremendous force” when the Syrian regime used chemical weapons.

On Iran, the candidates were split on whether they would tear up President Obama's nuclear accord with Iran if elected. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Ohio Gov. John Kasich took a measured approach, saying ripping up a deal agreed to not only by the United States but also several allies was not a strategy for stopping Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.

In an exchange on gay marriage and religious liberty, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee argued forcefully for the right of Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis to defy the Supreme Court's decision legalizing gay marriage. “I thought that everyone here passed ninth grade civics. The courts can't legislate,” he said. “I thought we had three branches of government.”

Huckabee declined to criticize Bush for saying Davis did not have the right to deny gays marriage licenses. Bush said he supports defending the rights of religious people to refuse to endorse gay marriage, but he said someone else in Davis' office should sign the certificates since the Supreme Court ruling is the law of the land.

“I think there needs to be accommodation for someone acting on their faith,” he said.

Even as Trump faded somewhat in the policy discussions, he was hardly invisible in the debate. He praised himself while deriding and scoring his rivals in the opening minutes of the debate at the Regan Presidential Library in southern California.

Standing at center stage, Trump said he had a “phenomenal temperament” and a record in business that would help him on the world stage. With his signature brashness, he immediately took on his rivals, saying Kentucky Sen. Paul didn't deserve to be on the crowded debate stage.

Trump has become increasingly critical of Fiorina as her standing has risen, and he was quoted in a recent interview making derogatory comments about her looks, though he later denied he was referring to her appearance.

Asked about Trump's comments, Fiorina said, “I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said.”

Fiorina and Trump traded barbs about their business records.

Fiorina said the roughly 30,000 layoffs she oversaw as CEO of Hewlett-Packard from 1999 to 2005 are an example of “tough calls” the next president will have to make.

Trump called the technology firm a “disaster,” blaming another 30,000 layoffs announced by the company this week on Fiorina's leadership. “She can't run any of my companies,” he said

Fiorina fired back, pointing to debt and bankruptcies stemming from Trump's casino investments. She retorted, “Why should we trust to you to manage the finances of this nation any differently than you manage the finances of our casinos?”

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie says Americans don't care.

“While I'm as entertained as anyone by this personal back-and-forth about the history of Donald and Carly's career, for the 55-year-old construction worker out in that audience tonight who doesn't have a job, who can't fund his child's education — I gotta tell you the truth — they could care less about your careers,” Christie said.

Continuing his appeal to the middle class, Christie added: “You're both successful people. Congratulations. The middle class in this country who's getting plowed under by Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, let's start talking about those issues tonight and stop this childish back-and-forth between the two of you.”

Trump advocated a progressive income tax, speaking out against a flat tax where everyone pays the same percentage no matter how much they earn.

Trump said that it's not fair for someone who makes $50,000 a year to pay the same percentage in taxes as a millionaire, promising to release a tax reform plan in a couple weeks that hedge fund managers won't like, but that those in the middle class will.

Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul disagreed, saying a flat 14.5 percent tax on everyone is the way to go.

Fiorina said Republicans in Congress should stand fast on defunding Planned Parenthood even if it triggers a government shutdown.

She said undercover videos of Planned Parenthood officials purportedly selling fetal organs make it a moral imperative to do anything possible to stop the organization. Planned Parenthood says it provides fetal tissue for medical research, charging a minor fee to cover costs.

Fiorina said, “This is about the character of our nation.”

She won the first standing ovation of night when she added, “If we will not stand up and force President Obama to veto this bill, shame on us.”

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